In 2007, when I was living in Canada, I served as the Vice-President of the Toronto Board of Rabbis. That is how I got to meet the Dalai Lama. You see, the Dalai Lama had come to Toronto and invited representatives of all of the faith communities to join him in an Afternoon Service in honor of the International Day of Peace. I was the Jew.
We met at the Convention Center. All of the faith leaders were ushered into a small room, with some comfortable chairs and glasses of tea, and there, in the center of the room, was the Dalai Lama. If I ever had any doubt that the Dalai Lama was a human vessel of holiness, my doubts were extinguished in that moment, because the Dalai Lama gives off a powerful spiritual energy, simply by his presence. Quiet and diminutive in stature, his presence fills the room and you simply understand that you are in the company of a holy man.
He asked each of us about our faith communities, and about our hopes and fears for the world. And he shared his own hopes and fears with us, over tea, in that little room. And then, as is his custom, he gave to each of us a linen scarf, placing it on our shoulders. I gave him a tallit, which he insisted that I put around his shoulders. I still remember his smile of delight. And I guess it was my reward, because there was a mix-up in the seating on the stage for the service, and the solution was to seat me next to His Holiness.
Now for the Dalai Lama joke…the Dalai Lama looked hungry, and since we were at the convention Center, I asked him if I could get him a hot dog from the concession booth. He replied, “Make me one with everything!” And when I brought him his hot dog, he said, “OK, now where is my change?” to which I replied, “Your Holiness, change comes from within.”
This is Rosh Hashanah, and it is a time for turning.
The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange.
The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more towards the South.
The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.
For leaves, birds and animals, turning comes instinctively,
But for us turning does not come so simply.
“Turning”, which in Hebrew is called “teshuvah” and also means repentance, requires of us that we make a change, not only in what we do but in who we are and, indeed, “change comes from within”.
The great Hasidic Master, Dov Baer of Mezritch, teaches the following:
No thing can change from its birth form to a different one. Like when an egg wishes to become a chicken, first it is necessary for it to completely nullify its “eggness” that is, its birth form, and only after that it is able to give birth to a new form. Indeed, in all matters like this, one must enter into the realm of “ayin” (which is an unfathomably deep nothingness, a nullification of all that one has been), and only after that, one is able to become something different.
So how, exactly, are we to do that? How are we to enter into this realm of “ayin”, where the aspects of the “who that we are” that we wish to change can be nullified, that moment in time created where the aspect that we wish to change is completely expunged from our being, and then the change will be possible.
Our High Holy Day liturgy gives us a prescription: Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah—these most powerful religious exercises of Repentance, Prayer and Righteous Giving. Indeed, our communal gathering, over these next ten days, assures that we will engage in the first two. For many, it is the most prayer-intensive period in the whole year, and our prayers are filled with the acknowledgement of wrongdoing, expressions of remorse, declaration of our humility, and pleas for forgiveness that represent the formula for a successful penitential quest. Opportunities for acts of tzedakah are also presented to us as we gather on these High Holy Days—from food, clothing and school supply donations in support of the needy in our Bay Area community to the Annual Appeal in support of our cherished congregation. And though these sacred actions, Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah, are inwardly motivated, they are, for the most part, outward expressions of our participation in the activities of a sacred community engaged in the process of renewal and return.
But change, as both Dov Baer of Mezritch and the Dalai Lama would agree, must come from within, and require an encounter with “ayin” or “nullification”, so we need to consider a different kind of prescription that can bring us to that moment in time when we empty ourselves completely of that which needs to change, so that the change can happen.
During our Elul study, I shared a teaching of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica. Known as “The Izhbitzer”, Reb Mordechai Yosef lived in Poland in the first half of the 19th Century. In his commentary on Parashat Shoftim, he offers a unique interpretation of Deuteronomy 16, verse 18:
“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving you…”
“Gates: we are to establish magistrates for each and every detail of life, in every state and in every city. This applies, as well, in our individual lives. These “gates” are the seven sense-gates by which we receive God’s goodness: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils (and we do derive good through the nose: we smell that which is connected to us) and our mouth. We have to exercise great care over each of these gates by which we derive good.”
The Izhbitzer is presenting an ethical lesson for us that may well inform our ability to bring about change from within. He suggests that each one of us must guard these seven gates—sight, hearing and speech, and the anger that emerges from the flaming nostrils. Over these gates, he tells us, we must set for ourselves “magistrates and officials” so that we will judge ourselves at all times, making sure that they will not commit any sin. If these places are kept whole, according to Reb Mordechai Yosef, then it is possible to remain always holy and pure.
The “magistrates and officials” that we appoint over our sense-gates serve to keep us mindful of the power that these gates possess. Our eyes—how we see other people and judge them, how we measure differences in size and shape, differences of color, gender or race, differences in ethnic and cultural behavior and garb. Our ears—whether we “listen” or just “hear” or don’t hear at all, whether we hear the anguish and pain of others or are deaf to their cry, whether we really listen to the stories of our children and our aging parents, whether we hear a higher call to action in the face of injustice or in defense of our planet. Our nostrils—in the Biblical mindset, the seat of our anger. Are we too quick to anger? Is our anger too hot? Do we hold on to it too long? Can we control, or at least manage our anger, and can we redirect it for good? And our mouth—perhaps the most powerful potentially destructive tool that we possess. The Talmud teaches us in regard to truthful speech, “No one should talk one way with his lips and think another way in her heart.” (Baba Metzia 49) And then there is the matter of hurtful speech and malicious gossip, which the rabbis call “lashon ha-ra” (evil speech). “Three people are injured by ‘lashon ha-ra’,” say the rabbis, “the one who speaks, the one who listens, and the one about whom they are speaking.” And so we are charged with the responsibility of being constantly aware of our words, as we learn in Tractate Berachot, “Let your ears hear what your mouth speaks” (Y Berachot 2.4)
In the end, it is all about awareness; awareness of our thoughts, words and deeds, awareness of the impact we have upon others and upon our world, awareness of the presence of God.
Consider this parable, from Me’or Einayim, the work of Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl:
A human king will dress himself in various outfits and costumes to be able to walk about among his soldiers, to disguise himself. That way they won’t recognize him, and he will be able to hear and see what they’re saying. But, there are those who are wise to the ways of the king, and who fear that perhaps the king is doing his thing in disguise among them in some garb, and who are therefore careful in what they say.
And so it is in infinitely different ways with the exalted Blessed Holy One on high, Who dresses and hides in different garbs: what God wears in the morning God does not wear in the evening. God moves among God’s hosts and hears and sees everything, as it says, ‘I will surely hide My face” (Deut 31:18)—in various garbs and means of hiding. Therefore, we must remember that the King is always present before us, as it says, “Shiviti Adonai L’negdi Tamid—God is always by my side” (Psalms 16:8). Even when we are doing business for our own needs, to our own ends, the Holy one, the King, King of Kings, is hidden, garbed in all we do.
Indeed, this is the path to change—awareness of God’s presence in all that we do, in all of the mundane actions and activities that make up our days, in our interactions with our families, in our encounters with other people, in our work and in our play; awareness of God’s presence in our speech and our hearing, in our anger and in our laughter. The Chasidic Masters, the Dalai Lama, and your most humble and unworthy rabbi all agree on this one teaching—that when you reach a stage of awareness of the immediacy of God’s presence, “God is always by my side”, you are on the path to “ayin”, that place of unfathomable nullification, where change begins.
Today is the day that the journey begins…