Watergen is a phenomenal Israeli machine that extracts water right out of the air and makes it available and safe for drinking. No spring. No lengthy pipes. No schlepping. It’s like a magic vessel – it receives water that’s already in the air that we otherwise have no access to.
This is a big deal. Water shortages kill people. Water shortages cripple communities. Water shortages start wars. Imagine. Wherever people are suffering from lack of water, really the water is right there. They’re standing in it! But they have no access to it.
And now they do – because of a magic vessel.
You and I are like the Watergen. We are vessels not for water but for the Divine presence. Like water, the Divine presence is all over (and really helpful), but it’s inaccessible and unusable – without a magic vessel!
We learn that we are vessels from God’s portable sanctuary called the Mishkan. God tells the Jewish people to “make for Me a sanctuary so that I will dwell in them.” “Them”? Shouldn’t the verse read, “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I dwell in it”? Our Sages explain that building the Mishkan is an exercise in self-development. God’s letting us know that the real dwelling place for the Divine is not the wood and metals of the Mishkan but in us – our very own hearts and minds.
This is a big deal. Divine presence is everywhere. Where is there not God’s presence? Yet for all intents and purposes it remains inaccessible and unhelpful to me and the world without a vessel.
You and I can be those vessels!
This is also a really big deal because I for one need the Divine presence in my life. I cannot think of a single, greater variable in my success than the wisdom, creativity, and love that comes with the Divine presence showing up in my heart and mind.
Having a nice, warm conversation with my wife? Good ideas and techniques are nice. Without the blessing of Divine presence to make use of them, I’ll botch that conversation every time.
Giving my children love and gentle boundaries? Ditto.
Finding a solution to internal or external conflict? Ditto.
Writing an effective blog? Again, ditto.
We become this magic vessel through a few steps.
First, we acknowledge that we are vessels, not creators. Watergen doesn’t create water. Its genius lies in its recognition of and capacity to receive what’s already there.
Second, we seek to receive.
Last night I spoke with one of my kids about the many conflicts he’s having with siblings.
“Why do you keep raising this?” said my child, exasperated. “If you don’t like the way I am, talk to God. He made me this way.”
It was a moment I felt love in my heart.
“True,” I acknowledged, “but you are His partner. You are responsible to contribute to peace. You must say, ‘God, I can’t do this but I want to. And You have the understanding I need. Please – give me the thoughts and feelings to be peaceful.’ Are you saying that to God?” I asked.
“No,” he acknowledged. He was quiet for a moment. Then he smiled. For a moment he glimpsed that he is a magic vessel.
I used to think my emotional distress or anxiety was real in the way a toddler thinks a shadow is real. The toddler thinks the shadow is something to fear and run from – it’s alive, it moves, it’s something of this world no less real than he is. And try as he might, he can’t shake it. Of course he’s terrified of the shadow.
Let me be clear – I don’t mean to belittle or dismiss the toddler’s fear. He is not making up his perception. He sees a real shape on the ground that pursues him. He just misunderstands the truth about that shape. The truth is that he needn’t run. The truth is that nothing needs to change for him to be safe right now.
Similarly, when I used to feel sensations of pain, fear, or shame, I used to think they were real in the sense that they indicated real and threatening things in my life. How else to explain my feeling threatened if not for there being something threatening – to run from, battle, or control? (Note: I’m not saying there’s no such thing as damaging behavior to protect one’s self from.)
Like the shadows, I still see and perceive pain. I’m not imagining the feelings. But I now know something about them I didn’t know before. I’m less inclined to run or battle or control them. I’m super grateful for this.
And I see that as tangible as our perceptions are, like all toddlers we, too, are prone to misunderstanding them. There is no lecture or imparting of information to offer a toddler who’s gripped by fear of his own shadow. There is love, acceptance, and deep trust that as real and painful as his fear is, he is safe right now. This will aid him to see a deeper truth sooner than later.
An older man approached me on the street recently.
“I just have a feeling you’re someone I can talk to,” he began. My curiosity was piqued. “I’m Jewish, I’m 76 years old, and I’m healthy but I’m getting older and I’m scared of dying. Can you share some Jewish wisdom about that?”
For a moment my mind raced with possible answers, information, resources. Then a feeling of awe struck me: this man is getting a knock on his heart’s door and he’s listening. Wow. I knew exactly what I wanted to share with him.
“There is something deep, deep inside of you that knows that life is a gift and that you don’t want to waste it. That might feel frightening to you but it’s valuable information. That’s your heart, your connection to God. It’s beautiful and it’s open. You can trust it. Keep following it!”
We spoke for 10 minutes, exchanged info, hugged and then wished each other farewell till later.
As I walked away I reflected on how moved I was. A man had felt an existential stirring, a need to seek wisdom, a connection with a complete stranger and he acted. What a partnership: Divine wisdom in a human heart.
Do we see the capacity of our own human heart to receive and hold Divine wisdom? Do we see how miraculous and yet how routine that is? If we don’t, how else will we vault past even mundane obstacles?
As my teacher, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, obm, used to say, “Know what you know!” You can know truth and wisdom in your heart. Look for that wisdom. Say thank you for it. There will be more. There’s no way to be the person, spouse, parent, child, leader you most want without it.
If you had a car with dual controls – steering wheels and pedals at both front seats – it could be a very helpful advantage over single control driving. If one driver is tired, can’t see, or can’t concentrate so well, he’s got someone to cover.
On the other hand, imagine if the second driver forgot about the very existence of the first. He would likely interfere with or even negate the skilled driving of the first. What a disaster.
This came to mind as I considered the wisdom inside each of us.
On the one hand, there’s something like the healing of a wound. It’s basically a single steering wheel job. I can do things to support or hinder the process, but I’m not directing coagulants, skin cells, blood flow, etc. I’m not driving. That’s all God. It’s mind boggling how myriads of systems are choreographed with wisdom toward tangible healing. I am SO grateful I don’t have any share in the driving on that task. Can you imagine?
Then there’s my inner world – my internal experiences of warm and peaceful, idealistic and driven, fearful and tense, jealous and hurt. To me that’s more dual steering. God is the source of all thought. He’s the source of my consciousness, that which allows me to feel my thought. He’s sourcing everything. So He’s obviously a driver.
On the other hand, I’m also a driver. I feel thoughts, prefer some, focus on, resist and protest others. I have the ability to intervene.
So now, what happens if I don’t know there’s another driver? I am going to interfere with and negate His driving! Gevalt.
It seems to me we do that all the time. Yes, God gave us a steering wheel in navigating our inner world. Our choice to focus and understand, to listen and pause, to act or step back are all essential uses of the gift of our steering. On the other hand, part of driving includes remembering we’re not the sole driver.
To me, insecure, fearful, and jealous experiences are like times of reduced visibility. They literally remind of the presence of the other driver. God is driving me through certain thought terrain where I can’t see so well. All human beings drive through these thoughts. There’s something to be had in them, or else He wouldn’t drive us through them. But trying to drive off the road to get elsewhere doesn’t go well; it messes up the Driver’s work. When the road loses its visibility, it’s a good reminder there’s another driver; it’s a good cue to ease off the wheel.
This has been such a helpful understanding to me. Please join me this at this Thursday's teleconference, 10am, to learn more about this metaphor and what it points to.
Not long ago, I was filled with judgment and anger toward a certain person for what I deemed great damage he caused me and my family. Recently, as I needed help on a new project, his name came to mind. “He’s uniquely capable of helping,” I thought. So I reached out.
The notion that after feeling victimized as I did I would then turn to him for help – and pay him! – astonishes me. And it also doesn’t. In a nutshell, here’s my understanding of what allowed me to move from A to B.
Step 1: I began to see what’s true about what causes my feelings and psychological experience. (Hint: it’s inside out). Simultaneously, I began to see more clearly what cannot be its cause. (Hint: people, stuff, events).
Step 2: I started paying less attention to what cannot be causes. Meanwhile, I went about my life as best I could and had a little less judgment when I did have false causes on my mind.
Step 3: The temptation and attraction of the false causes started to soften (sometimes, without my even registering that).
Step 4: New thoughts (and their attendant feelings) showed up.
In short, he wasn’t cause in my lingering upset. I didn’t know how to extract myself from the painful, consuming feelings of believing he was cause, but I got interested in what was true about those feelings. As I did, the wisdom connection God wired into me got less muddled and I began to see and feel differently.
A few caveats.
One. I’m not saying there’s no free will or effort involved in such a shift. It was plenty tempting at times to stay in the judgment and anger loop. I often did. To me, my role was to be interested in what was true, to be interested in acknowledging where I was mistaken. Even still, the shift in my internal experience seems miraculous relative to the part I played.
Two. There is such a thing as damaging, inappropriate behavior that one can be a victim of. I don’t think it wise or “spiritual” not to put an end to or redress damages. I speak more of the emotional suffering that lingers independent of damages.
Three. Looking at my words above, I wonder whether someone might feel it lacks empathy, as if a guy’s suffering is his fault and he should just stop blaming. To that I say: Suffering is just human. We don’t go there willfully and if we knew how to end it, we would. Without respect for a person’s struggle, it’s not helpful to tell someone consumed by pain or anger, “You know, the causes you attribute your pain to are built on falsehood.”
Four. I had a fourth thing I wanted to share but forgot it, which just reminds me again of how dependent I am on the gift of Divine thought.
This Friday night I lost it. Again. A day later I found it. Again.
One of my kids is struggling and it shows up in some anti-social and unpleasant habits. I have struggled with finding compassion toward his behaviors. My wife has struggled with finding compassion with my lack of compassion. It can be a potent cocktail. It kind of reminds me of a variation on the “lightbulb” joke:
Q: How many insecure people does it take to create conflict?
A: One’s enough, but the more the merrier.
In the 24 hours after our run-in (my becoming upset with my son, my wife becoming upset with me, my reacting to her), I went through a few now familiar stages.
As the Rabbis say, “The main children of a person are his good choices.” God is allowing me to give birth to something precious – a new choice, new understanding, a new self. Birth involves contractions and dilations and so does the human journey involve insecurity and equilibrium. I don’t resent, resist, nor take the contractions personally, as if my predilection to insecurity somehow defines me or my competence. Insecurity is a spiritual phenomenon from God that passes through me and every human. Be in them; touch the power of the Divine bringing forth new life through you. In the pain, trust in something good, wise, and greater than you can fathom.
5. I resolve to express my regret for the role I played in our conflict. I resolve to do better knowing that God has promised His help to all those who return: “One who comes to purify himself is assisted from above.”Wishing you blessings and success for a Sweet and Good New Year.
PS: I will be speaking more about this topic and it’s segue to the joy of Sukkot this Thursday, October 20, on the 10am Weekly Emuna Teleconference.
The Torah this week presents us with an astonishing claim that can greatly simplify our preparation for High Holidays.
"This commandment that I command you today - it is not hidden from you and it is not far. It is not in Heaven...Nor is it across the sea...Rather, the matter is very near to you..." (Deuteronomy, 30:11-14)
"This commandment," according to the commentaries, refers to the entire Torah: to love our fellow, not hold grudges, love and fear the Creator, be honest in our all affairs, and obviously much more. Is the Torah suggesting that this vast undertaking is not hard - "it's very near"? How?
Here's the parable the Dubno Maggid (Rabbi Jacob Kranz, 1741-1804) offered to explain this verse.
Fishel the beggar is passing the home of the wealthy Zalman.
"Fishel, my dear," says Zalman as he walks up the stairs to his house, "bring my package inside for me and I'll pay you a gold coin."
Fishel eyes the packages at the curb and begins schlepping a large box. Heaving from exertion, he enters Zalman's foyer and calls out, panting, "Zalman, I’m here. Where do you want it?"
Zalman's responds from an unseen room, "Fishel, I’m afraid you've brought the wrong package."
"What?! How can that be?" cries Fishel. "And how would you know - you can't even see me."
"I don't need to see you," replies Zalman. "I can hear you. I know you've brought the wrong package because mine is light."
According to the Maggid, the Torah is not telling us that our job in this world is easy. It's telling us that the job God intended for us is light, not heavy; simple, not confounding; accessible, not despairingly remote. When our life and our job look heavy, it’s evidence of a mistaken perspective, “a spirit of insanity” as the Talmud calls it. And part of our job is to gain understanding about the nature of our job.
Let’s say my wife and I don’t see eye to eye about one of our child’s needs. I might feel stuck. I’m responsible for my child. I feel clear that my perspective will bear fruit and hers won’t. I anticipate resistance from my wife, followed by conflict, followed by the possibility of losing my composure. Projections about the future multiply in my brain faster than a super computer till I feel and express judgment and resentment. In that moment my job looks heavy, confounding, and remote. How in the world am I going to change her and myself (and not my marital status)?
According to the Dubno Maggid, the Torah is telling me something about that. It’s the wrong package; put it down.
That story with my wife actually happened recently. I did lose my cool and spent several days stewing over what looked like an impossible situation. But I know too much to camp out in the blame and resentment. Even as I flirted with the upset and critical feelings, I knew they weren’t “true.” I knew those feelings were not coming from my wife or anything in the world God made; it was a “spirit of insanity.” To me, that’s the “putting down the wrong package”: not laboring to fix something that’s not real.
I kept my distance, tried to be cordial and helpful without forcing anything, and at some point, unburdened by the heavy job, I reset. I apologized. So did she. We reaffirmed our desire for a warm and compassionate connection. It was nice. The conversation about how to best help our child looks different – lighter – now.
I’m not suggesting that in an upset state I magically become exempt from my child’s needs: “Not my job; I’m angry now.” I’m always responsible. But responsibility begins with recognizing my inability to attend to my responsibility. When it looks heavy, my job is to back off.
The holy days that are upon us carry great potential for growth and accomplishment. It’s not uncommon that we feel pressure about the holidays: so much to do, so many changes to make – where do I begin?
We begin with the reminder that the job God designed for us is light and yet it’s normal to get lost in a job that feels heavy. Preferring the light job and backing off the heavy is in my mind the most leveraged growth in the coming year.
Let’s say there is a feeling inside of you niggling for change. It could be the simple dissatisfaction of, “Is this all there is?” or the pain of full blown addiction or marital strife.
Know: whatever efforts or strategies you employ to respond to that feeling inside, let truth be your starting point. Know what must be true about that feeling and all psychological experience. Know what cannot be true about it. All effort goes better when built on truth.
So what’s true? To start with, the feeling inside of you isn’t coming from some situation, person, or event in your past.
If a wife tells her husband angrily that she feels like an employee in the home (as a husband recently shared with me), and he feels resentful and discouraged about the marriage, he can go a variety of ways:
Personally, I recommend option D.
Our Sages point to this truth by saying, “All who become angry are likened to idolaters.” Idolatry at its simplest level is synonymous with falsehood. More subtly, it’s ascribing power to that which does not have power. One who angers can know with certainty: my anger results from the wholly unreliable premise that “things and circumstances” can and do have power, including over my emotional state.
This doesn’t mean the “I feel like an employee” comment was appropriate. Nor does it mean it’s bad to feel yanked around by memories, others’ comments, or circumstances. Being alive involves making the mistakes of inappropriate comments and believing in false powers.
Valuing what’s true, being suspicious of what cannot be true – these form the bedrock of emunah, understanding of God. These form the bedrock of all wise and productive effort. And this is what we explore every Thursday in the Weekly Emunah Teleforum, live at 10am EST and archived here.
As Maimonides introduced his 14 volume summary of all Jewish wisdom, “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a Preeminent Power.”
Our Sages say that humility is the mother of all good character.
Humility allows us to see reality free from the haze of self-absorption; to be connected to and of help to others; to devote ourselves to good, undeterred by self-doubt or public opinion; to be with G-d, the source of all, in this moment.
It’s worth taking a moment to contemplate Rashi’s definition of humility (in reference to Moshe, Numbers 12:3): shafel v’savlan – “low in spirit and long-enduring.” I’d like to focus specifically on savlan – “long-enduring.”
Savlan is related to savlanut – in modern Hebrew “patience.” But our Sages point out that the root of savlan means “to bear,” as in to carry a load. The image is of one carrying a precious package on a journey. At some point he wearies. The package is heavy.
“Is it really necessary to schlep this thing?” he says to himself. “It hurts. I resent it. I’ll chuck it away.”
This is the test of a savlan. In any relationship – with G-d, with a spouse, with a child, with one’s self – there are aspects of our experience that feel burdensome.
“Why is G-d, my spouse, my child, myself doing this? I don’t like it, I want it to change, it won’t, I’m done.”
Being done bearing the burden means chucking the relationship: giving up, blowing up, withdrawing, escaping, acting out. It’s so human and normal to want to relieve one’s self of what seems like unnecessary burden. How do we keep carrying the load?
To me, the first step is understanding that “burdens” can’t weigh on us directly. The heat, the kids’ fighting, the spouse’s disagreeableness, my own shortcomings – they cannot cause burdensomeness by themselves. They can’t source our experience.
It’s only G-d who sources our experience through the gift of thought in this moment. And He tells us in advance that He sources the gift of thought and renews it moment to moment – both expansive and constricted. Yes, there are inappropriate behaviors. But those behaviors feel burdensome solely and only inside the flow of Divine thought that He endows us with moment to moment to moment. To me, this is hopeful.
Not hopeful in that I will be able to now “change” my experience. Hopeful in that I don’t need to.
In truth, no “amount of” or “skill with” this understanding can directly change our experience. Not even our talking about, reading about, or listening to this description of how our experience is shaped can alter how the gift of thought shows up from G-d. I can know about how the experience of “burdens” work and yet still desire to chuck them. This understanding, to the best I grasp it, is not a technique or tool.
To me, it’s simply the truth that all there is is me and G-d.
A person might ask, “Well, I’ve been learning about this understanding for months or years, and though I’ve seen some very nice things, I still regularly feel like chucking the burden of me, my child, etc. [author’s note: my hand goes up here]. So how is this helpful?”
Truth is always helpful.
And when one considers that G-d likens our growth to giving birth (“a righteous person’s primary children are his good deeds” Breishis Rabah, 30:6), we can take comfort. The “burdens” of our life are temporary, divinely induced contractions. There is nowhere else to be in the burden of a contraction than in the contraction: knowing it’s from G-d, knowing I can’t nor need change it; knowing it’s human; knowing it’s worth it; knowing it’s nothing more nor less than my unique mission of bringing new life to this world.
And no amount of understanding, skill, or prior births enable one to prevent contractions in bringing forth new babies. But we know: people give birth all the time. There’s pain, there’s a new baby, and we move forward with gratitude for the awesome experience, without need to revisit or solve the “trauma.”
One more thought: if this doesn’t feel helpful or hopeful, tune it out. G-d has so many ways to bring us help and encouragement. I have no authoritative claim that this message is necessary or right for you. As King David says, “G-d is close to all those who call Him, to all those who call Him with sincerity.” Not my teachings, nor my ideas. Sincere turning to Him because after all, it’s just me and Him.