Here's the audio version of this talk I gave today:
And the written version:
A few days ago I was on a bus and looked up at the screen where they show the name of the stop. It read: תחנה הבאה, the next stop, but just glancing at it for a moment I read its anagram, תחנה אהבה, the love stop. Press the button, quick! That’s my stop! and today, Tu b’Av, that’s our stop, the Jewish holiday of love. Really that is our stop, where we’re headed, the Torah tells us in this week’s parsha, v’etchanan, v’ahavta, and you shall love YHVH. R’ Yaakov Yosef, talmid of the Baal Shem Tov, says that the essence and purpose of the Torah, mitzvot and the work of tefila is all preparation to come into the fullness of this v’ahavta. So in case you’re wondering, that’s what we’re here for. Now you know ;)
A little over five years ago at the end of a beautiful retreat with my dear teacher, Jaya Ashmore, as we hugged in parting, with a purity and power of intention she spoke four words that have deeply impacted my life, reverberating in my mind thousands of times since:
“I love you, Danny.”
I was taken aback, my heart held in love. It is very easy to speak those words, many of us do it all the time, it is more difficult to speak them from the depths of an open, caring heart that carries them straight into the heart of another, and all the more so a person who we may not have deep acquaintance. It is to Jaya’s credit to hold a space for profound human encounter- simple, grounded, free, fresh, loving. And I’m grateful also for my own growing ability to resonate with that mode and be there too.
It seems that when the heart is undefended, the love is very accessible, very natural, like when there’s no clouds the sunlight just comes right down. Like the earth, sometimes we turn away from it out of a certain momentum of conditioning/attachment patterns, finding ourselves in darkness, maybe everyday and that’s something we can explore too.
What are the clouds that obscure and shroud the heart?
The Baal Shem Tov brings us the verse אנכי עומד בין ה׳ וביניכם, translating that as האנוכיות והחומריות שבאדם עומדת כמחיצה המפסקת בין ה׳ וביניכם, it’s a person’s contracted sense of self and grossness (ie not refined/subtle/sensitive) that stand between us and the Divine. I was going to try and diagram that but got tripped up when it was time to draw God.
Sometimes people think this means we have to get rid of something. get rid of the self, a tragic and often harmful understanding of bittul/Ayin and spiritual work. And it defies love. אהבה/Ahava is gematria אחד/One. Love and non-separateness are intimately related. We are not out to destroy anything. And we can notice that quality of energy, that attitude of destroying and getting rid…and see if that fits well with our aspirations for how we’d like to be, if it fits well with love and if it’s true to Oneness.
I want to suggest rather that we can learn to see through the illusion of separate self, relaxing out of our entanglement in the Gordian knot of separate-selfing and the dramatis personae and awakening to the fullness of Being which is always what’s here, should we choose to accept it, to unwrap the Present.
Ron Kurtz, founder and developer of Hakomi, mindfulness-based somatic psychotherapy, with deep experience in healing and people’s inner lives wrote thus:
“Effort is an ego function. When one efforts, the act of efforting creates an I and a something the I struggles against. In this drama of struggle and competition, the chief act is the creation of a separate self: an ego. Without the struggle there is no drama and no dramatis personae. With the spontaneous, effort evaporates and ego relaxes. This relaxation is essential for healing. This relaxation is not a passive giving up, but a giving in to the process, a faith in something deeper in oneself, in realms beyond the ego”
So in this week’s parsha we have the words of the Shema. Shema Yisrael. Listen struggling one: Being is our Power, Being is One, it’s safe to relax. safe to let go.
struggle vs relax
When we do that, then we can love. This I believe is why the Shema leads into v’ahavta.
So this mitzvah of v’ahavta only appears at the end of the Torah. We’re taught that it is the culmination, that all the mitzvot and Torah are actually leading us to the possibility of v’ahavta. We have this anochi to deal with, the trappings and pitfalls of ego. The ego is the result of evolutionary survival tendencies, we push away what seems to threaten us, we grasp for and cling to what *seems* to offer opportunity, and we ignore pretty much everything else. So there’s a lot of effort, a lot of struggle, and a lot of sense of lack or protecting. and all the abundance which is here gets screened out of our awareness. On a survival level we are programmed to have a baseline level of subtle anxiety. Our modern world for many people raises that to a baseline of chronic stress. Often we feel very far removed from love.
We know from the א in Vayikra which is written small, Aleph being the letter of One and of Ahava/Love, that to contact this dimension requires a more careful awareness. Let’s listen to that word for a moment, careful. Care Full. Full of care. So for us to start shifting our experience from anxiety and lack and defensiveness to love and fullness means bringing an attention that is full of care. Some of our practices are designed around evoking that quality of care, which in some places may arise for us much more readily, and learning to integrate it more fully in our lives, to have it more accessible.
Part of what can make it difficult is if you feel a scarcity and need to defend. There’s a lot of insight around our difficulties from attachment theory and therapy and how our early experiences in childhood shape our adult relationships and self experience, which is available for change. Thank God for neuroplasticity, which may be a modern translation of teshuva. So starting by cultivating a felt sense of safety and being loved helps us move from the red zone to the green zone. That’s why we started today with orienting and taking in our surroundings. Neuroscientist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson discusses this at length and I recommend his work and trainings.
This experience of feeling cared for, endeared is also built into the structure of the shema, the love sandwich. The blessing before the Shema is ahava raba ahavtanu, or ahavat olam ahavtanu. With a great love have you loved us, or with the world’s love have you loved us. I really like to pause there, as we did in our chanting, and use some imagery to really take that in and let it soak me, to let my being know that. Using a memory of feeling loved can be really helpful, or any of the practices we’ve explored today.
מגיד בשם הבעש׳׳ט שמצות אהבת ה׳ היא שיהודי יבקש תמיד דרכים לעורר האהבה, וקיום המצוה הוא לעסוק בדברים המעוררים אהבת ה׳.
The Maggid of Mezritch says in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that the mitzvat of v’ahavta is actually to always seek ways to arouse love.
Once we have relaxed into being love, we are primed to open more fully to the א that is right here, to Shema/hearken to what is most true.
And from that place we can move into loving fully, bkhol levavcha, wholeheartedly, bkhol nafshecha, with your whole being, dying into it, ubkhol meodecha. In tractate of Brachot this last piece “meodecha” is parsed as bkhol mida umida sh’Hu moded lecha havei modeh meod meod, with every measure that *He* metes out to you, be very thankful. A teaching on equanimity, receiving every sensory experience as a gift, candy factory unwrapping it with thanks, not a contrived thanks, but the thanks that arises of letting ourselves be touched by life, in whatever texture or flavor it comes. As we’re taught, Ain od milvadO. There is nothing other than the Divine. The Netivot Shalom brings the verse from the book of Nechemya, ואתה מחיה את כולם, You bring life into everyone/thing. or we could say, You are the life in every thing, because there is nothing else. Which is a fascinating perspective to make real in practice, and for me has been meaningful, realizing that this sensory experience right now, though I might be averse to it, is actually the Divine. That helps me open to and welcome it, let its vibrating lifefulness take place.
On Tu b’Av the ancient minhag/custom was for all the single maidens to go out and dance in the fields, making themselves available for zivug/yichud/union with a partner. Reminds me of the invitation in the Likutim Yekarim, teachings of the Maggid of Mezritch, on a verse in the Megilat Esther
בתור כל נערה ונערה לבוא אל המלך
literally, the turn of each and every young woman to come before the King
he reads that word ‘naara’ as indicating מנוערת/menu’eret, from the same root, and meaning dissociated, and he relates this to machshavot zarot, the unbidden thoughts that seem to interrupt you while you’re trying to focus, saying that these interruptions are actually the arrival of dissociated parts arriving one by one before the King, that is, Awareness. In order to be reintegrated, the parts of us that have been in exile, that are stuck in childhood because they didn’t get what they needed - the love, support, safety, empathy, agency, connection, recognition, or whatever it is that this part is yearning for, it is now re-appearing to get just that experience, appealing to the King, ie to your adult self who can receive it with open arms, care-fully, and let that part actually experience getting what it needs, so it can grow up and release that coping strategy.
And when we live that way, with that attitude, and because it’s an attitude it’s not dependent on what is happening TO us, every stop can be the love stop.