The Limits of Wealth

“As a man came out of his mother’s womb, so must he depart at the end, naked as he came. He can take nothing of his wealth to carry away with him” (Ecclesiastes 5:14).

The Rabbis comment: Man’s life can be compared to a fox who found a vineyard, fenced in on all sides. There was one little hole in it, through which the fox wanted to get in. But it was too narrow, and he did not succeed.

What did he do? He fasted for three days until he became thin and frail, and then entered through the hole. Once inside, the fox ate the grapes and grew fat. When he wanted to leave, however, he was again unable to fit through the hole. So once more he fasted for three days until he was thin and frail, and he went out.

Once outside, he turned towards the vineyard and said, “Vineyard, vineyard, how good is your fruit! All that is within you is beautiful and worthy of praise. But of what use are you? Just as one enters you, so one must come out.”

So too with this world!

——- Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5:14

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Published in: on May 14, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Dangers of Asceticism

A rich Hasid came to Rabbi Dov Baer and asked for his blessing. The rebbe started to engage him in conversation.

“I’m curious to learn how a man of your great wealth conducts his household,” the rebbe asked him. “For example, what do you eat every day?”

“Oh, we live very simply,” the man answered. “I myself eat nothing more than dry bread and salt.”

The rebbe became incensed. “Dry bread and salt are not sufficient for a man of your riches! You should be eating meat, wine, and fresh bread.” He continued chiding the rich man until he finally consented to eat tastier, more luxurious, food.

After he left, Dov Baer’s surprised disciples questioned him: “What does it matter to you if that man eats stale bread with salt or meat with wine?”

“It matters a great deal,” Dov Baer answered. “If he feasts on meat and wine, he will understand that the poor need at the very least stale bread with salt. But if he himself eats nothing more than stale bread with salt, he will imagine that the poor can satisfy themselves with stones.”

Published in: on May 12, 2009 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Old Man and the Ravishing Maiden

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose met one night at the Tower of  Tyre.  They stayed there as guests, delighting in each other.

Rabbi Yose said, “I am so glad to see the face of  Shekhinah! For just now, the whole way here, I was pestered by an old man, a donkey driver, who kept asking me riddles the whole way:

“‘Who is a serpent that flies in the air and wanders alone, while an ant lies peacefully between its teeth? Beginning in union, it ends in separation.

“‘Who is an eagle that nests in a tree that never was? Its young who have been plundered, who are not created creatures, lie somewhere uncreated. Going up, they come down; coming down, they go up.
Two who are one, and one who is three.

“‘Who is a ravishing maiden without eyes, her body concealed and revealed? She comes out in the morning and is hidden all day.
She adorns herself with adornments that are not.’

“All this he asked on the way; I was annoyed. Now I can relax. If we had been together, we would have engaged in words of Torah instead of strange words of chaos.”

Rabbi Hiyya said, “That old man, the donkey driver, do you know anything about him?”

Rabbi Yose answered, “I know that there is nothing in his words. If he knew anything, he should have opened with Torah; then the way would not have been empty!”

Rabbi Hiyya said, “That donkey driver, is he here? For sometimes in those empty fools, you discover bells of gold! ”

Rabbi Yose said, “Here he is, fixing some food for his donkey.”

They called him, and he came over.

He said to them, “Now two are three, and three are like one!”

Rabbi Yose said, “Didn’t I tell you that all his words are empty nonsense?”

He sat before them and said, “Rabbis, I turned into a donkey driver only a short time ago. Before, I wasn’t one. But I have a small son, and I put him in school; I want him to engage Torah. When I find one of the rabbis traveling on the road, I guide his donkey from behind.

Today I thought that I would hear new words of Torah, but I haven’t heard anything!”

Rabbi Yose said, “Of all the words I heard you say, there was one that really amazed me. Either you said it out of folly, or they are empty words.”

The old man said, “And which one is that?”

He said, “The one about the ravishing maiden.”

The old man opened and said,

” `YHVH is on my side; I have no fear.
What can any human do to me?
YHVH is by my side, helping me.
It is good to take refuge in YHVH.’

“How good, pleasant, precious, and high are words of Torah! But how can I say them in front of rabbis from whose mouths, until now, I haven’t heard a single word? But I should say them because there is no shame at all in saying words of Torah in front of everyone!”

The old man covered himself. The old man opened and said,
“‘Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain.’
What is this cloud?
The same one of which it is written:
‘I have placed my bow in the cloud.’
We have learned that the rainbow took off her garments
and gave them to Moses.
Wearing that garment, he went up the mountain;
from inside it he saw what he saw,
delighting in the all, up to that place.”

The companions approached and threw themselves down in front of the old man. They cried, and said, “If we have come into the world only to hear these words from your mouth, it is enough for us!”

The old man said,
“Companions, not for this alone did I begin the word.
An old man like me doesn’t rattle with just a single word. Human beings are so confused in their minds. They do not see the way of truth in Torah.
She calls out to them every day, in love, but they do not want to turn their heads.
She removes a word from her sheath, is seen for a moment, then quickly hides away, but she does so only for those who know her intimately.

“A parable.

To what can this be compared?
To a beloved, ravishing maiden, hidden deep within her palace.
She has one lover, unknown to anyone, hidden too.
Out of love for her, this lover passes by her gate constantly, lifting his eyes to every side.
Knowing that her lover hovers about her gate constantly, what does she do?
She opens a little window in her hidden palace, revealing her face to her lover, then swiftly withdraws, concealing herself.
No one near him sees or reflects, only the lover, and his heart and his soul and everything within him flow out to her.
He knows that out of love for him she revealed herself for that one moment to awaken love in him.

“So it is with a word of Torah:
she reveals herself to no one but her lover.
Torah knows that one who is wise of heart hovers about her gate every day.
What does she do?
She reveals her face to him from the palace and beckons him with a hint, then swiftly withdraws to her hiding place.
No one there knows or reflects — he alone does, and his heart and his soul and everything within him flows out to her.
This is why Torah reveals and conceals herself.
With love she approaches her lover to arouse love with him.

“Come and see the way of Torah.
At first, when she begins to reveal herself to a human, she beckons him with a hint.
If he perceives, good; if not, she sends him a message, calling him simple.
Torah says to her messenger:
‘Tell that simple one to come closer, so I can talk with him.’
He approaches.
She begins to speak with him from behind a curtain she has drawn, words he can follow, until he reflects a little at a time.
This is derasha.
Then she converses with him through a veil, words riddled with allegory.
This is haggadah.

“Once he has grown accustomed to her, she reveals herself face to face and tells him all her hidden secrets, all the hidden ways, since primordial days secreted in her heart.

“Now he is a complete human being, husband of Torah, master of the house.
All her secrets she has revealed to him, withholding nothing, concealing nothing.

“She says to him, `Do you see that word, that hint with which I beckoned you at first?
So many secrets there! This one and that one!’

“Now he sees that nothing should be added to those words and nothing taken away. Now the peshat of the verse, just like it is.
Not even a single letter should be added or deleted.

“Human beings should become aware, pursuing Torah to become her lovers.”

The old man was silent for a moment.
The companions were amazed; they did not know if it was day or night,
if they were really there or not.

“Enough, companions!
From now on, you know that evil has no power over you.
I, Yeiva Sava, have stood before you to awaken your awareness of these words.”

They rose as if awakened from sleep and threw themselves down in front of him, unable to utter a word.
After a while they began to cry.
Rabbi Hiyya opened and said,
“‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.’ Love and sparks from the flame of our heart will escort you.
May it be the Will that our image be engraved in your heart as your image is engraved in ours.”

He kissed them and blessed them, and they left.

When they rejoined Rabbi Shim’on and told him everything that happened, he was delighted and amazed.
He said, “You are fortunate to have attained all this. Here you were with a heavenly lion, a fierce warrior for whom many warriors are nothing, and you could not recognize him!
I am amazed that you escaped his punishment.
The Blessed Holy One must have wanted to save you.”

He called out these verses for them:
“The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, growing brighter and brighter until the day is full.
When you walk, your stride will be free;
if you run, you will not stumble.
Your people, all of them righteous, will inherit the land forever —
a sprout of my planting, the work of my hands, making me glorious.”

Published in: Uncategorized on May 10, 2009 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Equanimity

Whoever attains the mystery of cleaving to God will attain the mystery of equanimity, and if one attains the mystery of equanimity, one will attain the mystery of aloneness. Having attained the mystery of aloneness, this person will attain the holy spirit. And from there, prophecy, and he will prophesy the future.

As for the mystery of equanimity, Rabbi Avner told me the following:

A lover of wisdom came to one who secluded himself in meditation and asked to be accepted as one of them. The master of meditation replied, “My son, may you be blessed from heaven, for your intention is good. But let me know: Have you attained equanimity or not?”

He responded, “Master, clarify your words.”

He explained, “My son, if one person honors you and another humiliates you, are the two equal in your eyes or not?”

He answered, “By the life of your soul, my master! I do feel pleasure and satisfaction from the one who honors me and pain from the one who humiliates me — but I am not vengeful nor do I bear a grudge.”

The master said, “My son, go away in peace. For as long as you have not attained equanimity and still feel humiliation from something done to you, you are not ready for your thought to be linked on high. You are not ready to come and seclude yourself in meditation. But go and humble your heart further, genuinely, until you attain equanimity. Then you can experience aloneness.”

 Those who practice aloneness and unify the divine name kindle the fire on the altar of their hearts. By their pure thought, all the sefirot are unified and linked to one another until they are drawn to the source of the infinitely sublime flame. Here lies the secret of the unification that a person performs in the morning and evening prayers, raising all the sefirot and unifying them into a single cluster. Thereby one cleaves to the divine name.

Published in: on May 8, 2009 at 10:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

The King’s Loyal Subject

There was once a king who ruled over a vast kingdom. The king had a son. One day, the king began to think of the future and of the time when his son would be the next king. And the king wondered whether his son was actually suited for this position. Was he mature enough? Could he handle the responsibilities? Did he possess the necessary inner resources? The king decided to find out. He wanted to test his son to see whether he could indeed be a powerful and just ruler.

The king therefore called his son in and said to him, “As prince of the kingdom, you will now be given a great deal of authority to exercise. I am going to give you plenty of wealth and power; you will be able to do many things. As a matter of fact, you have my blessing to do almost anything you want in the kingdom. But there is one thing I want you not to do. If you will just avoid this one thing, everything else will be yours and you will have all of my blessings. The one thing I want you not to do is this: you must never engage in any kind of premarital sex. Other than this, you can have anything in my kingdom and you have the power now to do what you want.”

The son agreed; he replied, “Fine. I accept the conditions.” No sooner did he leave than the king called in the most beautiful, seductive prostitute in his entire kingdom. The king said to her, “I will give you ten million in gold if you can get my son into bed with you. Use all of your charms; do anything you wish to seduce him. If you succeed, this tremendous reward will be yours.” So off the prostitute went to find the king’s son.

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The stage is set; the players were the king, his son, and the prostitute.

The question that Jewish mystics have for millennia asked is: is not the prostitute simply doing the king’s bidding. Can we say that she is evil or even bad? She is simply doing precisely what the king requested of her.

In the context of Kabbalistic concepts about evil, it is helpful to focus briefly on the intriguing topic of the devil. How does the devil fit into the metaphysical system around us and what is his function? Be aware that Judaism has historically dealt quite specifically with this subject. Indeed, the devil — Satan — is mentioned directly in the Bible. Look at the Book of Job. The devil is very much a part of classic Jewish theology.

What, then, is the Jewish devil? The Jewish conception of Satan is quite unlike its counterpart in historical Christianity. According to Judaism, Satan is a very faithful servant of God — one of His most faithful servants. Since God has created evil, the realm of evil belongs to Satan. But this realm is really a gift to man — insuring his capacity of free will — and so Satan has a very important task to perform. It is his mission to do precisely what God wants him to do, for the Kabbalah teaches that nothing is more powerful than Ain Sof (Without End, God the Immanent).

To explain more clearly Satan’s role in human life Kabbalists have long told the above story. Kabbalists compare the king to God and the son to humanity. The prostitute was not even really a prostitute but a very loyal subject of the king who agreed to play the part. She was really an extremely moral, loyal woman and this view is exactly how Kabbalists regard the devil. He is a very loyal servant of God, being sent on a mission involving humanity.

In terms of our analogy, the prostitute is certainly trying her very best to carry out the king’s request. She may be secretly hoping that the son will resist her wiles, but she will use every charm she possesses to seduce him. In the same way, the devil is seen as a very loyal servant of God who is bound by God’s word. The devil does only what God bids and is there to set the stage to allow for man’s free will. In Judaism, then, the devil is not regarded as a malevolent or evil entity challenging God’s rule. Indeed, the Talmud says quite clearly, “Do as the devil does but not as the devil says.” This is because the devil does only what God asks. Judaism has many allusions to this concept: that the devil is an entity very close to God and that the function of evil is to ensure human free will.

Kabbalists teach that our relation to evil fundamentally changed when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Until that moment evil existed but it was out side of man. With the eating of the forbidden fruit, evil actually became incorporated into the human soul or psyche. Ever since that time evil has existed within us; it has been part of our nature as earthly creatures.

Published in: Uncategorized on May 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Grain

Long ago, in a faraway land, there was a strange type of mold that affected the grain in the fields. The king knew that if his people ate this grain, they would lose their mind and go mad. He discussed the problem with his chief advisor, and decided to use the grain in the storehouses while trying to find a remedy in the afflicted grain. Time passed and the storehouses where empty, but still no remedy was found. The king decided that it was better to feed his people grain that would make them lose their mind than to let them die of starvation.

“I too will eat of this grain,” he told his advisor, “so that I will be like my people — lost in madness. From that hated place, I would be able to lead them.”

“But what of me?” said the advisor, “I will advise you, but you will not understand me.”

“You too must eat of the grain,” said the king, “but there is one more thing. Before we eat this grain, I will order all my people to put a mark on their forehead. Every morning, they must look at their reflection and see this mark and ask themselves who they really are.”

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This is how the story ends, and this is how it ends for many of us. Having fed of the stuff that shutters dreams, we are left wondering who we would be if we were in our right mind. What would life be if we followed our dreams and visions of who we yearn to be? Through these dreams and visions we find our mark; the Divine purpose of our lives is revealed to us.

Make your dreams a thing of beauty. They are what is possible when barriers are removed and obstacles disappear. To dream is not to fantasize. To dream is to create first in the heart, then in the mind, and then in the world in which we live.

Published in: Uncategorized on May 2, 2009 at 11:19 am  Leave a Comment  

The Ancient Concept of Hell

Once there was a kingdom in which a king ruled over a vast territory. Many people lived in the kingdom. While they did not have the opportunity to see him or come into direct contact with him, they had much contact with his laws and decrees. Many of these rulings seemed unjust and harsh, especially for the poorer folk who lived in the far reaches of the kingdom.

After a new decree has been issued, one man in particular was incensed over yet another harsh edict. To show his resentment and bitterness against the king, he took a bucket of excrement and smeared its contents on a statue of the king which stood in his town square. He defiled the statue.

At this very moment, some of the king’s soldiers happened by and saw the man’s act. The next day, the man’s deeds and name were reported to the king. He instructed his soldiers to bring the man to the palace.

When the soldier’s came to the man’s house and arrested him, he knew that he had been found out. He imagined that he would be tortured or decapitated for his offense against the king’s honor. He was swiftly brought to the palace and kept waiting, under guard, for quite some time. Finally the kings said to the soldiers, “Take this man and put him to work. Give him a job. Let him work in the gardens of the palace.”

Thereupon, the man was taken and told that he was to work in palatial gardens. He did not understand this at all, he had anticipated something completely different. The man was given a place to live, and daily worked in the gardens.

Several months passed. The man reflected that he had a nice house now, nourishing food, and enjoyable work. He found the gardening work pleasant and invigorating. In fact, he had never had life so good.

A long time went by. The king said to his guards, “Remember the man whom we put to work in the gardens? I want you to give him a promotion. Make him a head gardener.” The guards came to the man and announced his new position. He is now incharge of all the people who worked in the garden. He had respect and authority.

A long time went by once more, another year or two. The king said to his guards, “I want to give this man another promotion. I want you now to move him inside the palace. I want him to have a job here within the palace, a job with even more honor than he enjoyed in the gardens. The man was approached again and informed of his new promotion. He moved into the palace. He acquired more authority, more money, more power.

Every period of time the man received another promotion. Finally the man was promoted into the king’s inner circle of advisors. He found himself at a huge table in the king’s inner palace. He met with the king, his opinion was sought by the king’s other counselors. He became one of the most powerful figures in the entire kingdom.

Of course, during all this time that had elapsed the man had began to rethink his original deed. Now that he had a chance to be so close to the king, he could perceive him in a very different way than he had been able to before. The man realized  how good the king was, how just his decrees were. Now the man was himself part of the king’s decision-making process; he understood the other side of the issues.

The story doesn’t end here, though. The man kept receiving more and more promotion. Finally he was promoted to be one of the top two or three most powerful advisors of the king. He had become one of the most important figures in the kingdom. He was making decisions that affected the entire kingdom.

One day he happened to be alone with the king. The king suddenly said to him, “I imagine you are very surprised since you came to the palace.” The man answered,”Yes, I am.”  The king replied, “This isn’t what you expected, is it?” And the man answered, “No.”

“Well, have you enjoyed your stay here?” the king asked. And the man responded, “No, I’ve been miserable every moment that I’ve been here. The more good you’ve done for me, the more miserable I’ve felt. I have to confess to you what I did a few years ago.”

The man then told the king of his earlier deed against the king’s statue, the event that brought him to the palace. He related that now he had come to feel very differently about the king’s acts and decrees.

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This is the ancient concept of hell. It is not a place where we are made to suffer, in the sense that other religions portray hell. Rather, Kabbalists view it as a place where we are brought closer to the king, closer to God (a place of realization). In coming closer to God and seeing more clearly what His plan is all about, there will be suffering from within. Suffering will not come from without us but from inside us. It will come from the awareness of what we have done against the king. Yet the suffering borne from this awareness will bring us closer to God. So even hell can serve to draw us nearer to God.

Published in: Uncategorized on May 1, 2009 at 9:14 pm  Leave a Comment