Everyone knew that Sean Dowd loved yoga, he pretty much lived his life in yoga clothing, consciously screaming of his yoga crush to the whole world. But his closer friends also knew that he loved anything “Eastern and spiritual.” He loved Indian food, Buddhist meditation, Dao mindfulness, veganism, and chai. He loved saffron, cloves, donating chickens to villages in Cambodia, and saying “Namaste Brothers!”
On any give morning, you could find him hanging out at the Three Roosters, a pungent incense-filled Thai tea shop, where he’d be sipping Ceylon White Cloud tea, and browsing the web on his sticker covered MacBook Pro. Within thirty seconds of any conversation, he would find a way to talk about the poses he did at his morning yoga session, “Dude, we did the Pungu Mayurasana this morning, you know… the wounded peackock, and then we did the yoganidrasana and I had myself in such a pretzel I didn’t know if I could get ever get myself untied. Man, it was just pure pain and pleasure all mixed into one! Bro, you should really come to one of the yoga classes at The Yoga Tree, I keep telling you, yoga is not a workout it a community of love and self-mastery!”
April Yeats was from LA, but she didn’t think of herself as an LA girl. LA was so materialistic, and she was much more spiritual. Yes, she worked at Louis Vuitton, and lived in a studio on Venice Beach paid for by her dad, but that was not where her center was, that wasn’t what made her who she was. April’s center was a place she spent at least an hour each day; the meditation mat.
The ritual was always the same. She would come home from a long day at work, and relax for about a half hour, catching up on social media and news. After changing into a simple white shift, she would walk into her meditation room, a small ten by ten room painted golden saffron a color said to be calming and serene. There was nothing on the walls or floor. Her mind-body-soul faciliitator at the Kabbala Center said that physical things cloud the mind, so the only objects in the room were large balsam scented candles in each corner, and a black meditation mat woven by Sri Lankan monks. She even had her dad send someone to install speakers in the ceiling to make sure there was less “stuff” in the room.
Using wooden matches, April would light the candles, then with the iPhone app that controlled the home audio system she would turn on a soundtrack of ocean waves and soft Chinese reed music. The iPhone would them be turned on to airplane mode, and softly placed outside the door, no one wants their phone ringing and pinging in middle of meditation. She would sit down cross-legged on her mat and begin meditating.
Clearing the mind was not easy for April, there was always so much on her mind. There was the production assistant who came in that day to buy some scarves for a movie wardrobe, and acted as if she could actually afford the $800 scarves. Come on, she was wearing Sketchers and no one wearing Sketchers can afford Louis V. Then there were the gaggle of Emirati women who came in with security gaurds and bought half of their women’s made-to-measure apparel. Yeah, you’re going back to the Middle East where you have to wear a burka over everything anyway, so why are they so crazy for fashion anyway? Even after she cleared work related debris from her mind, there was her personal life, which wasn’t great fun to think about either. Being thirty-eight and unattached made her feel like a failure. Her friends always pushed her to get out more often, but meditation was so much more centering than a night out on the town trying to meet someone special. It took a steady stream of Om chanting to clear her mind and get to her real center, that pure place where there were no thoughts at all, no noise, no debris, no pain, only serenity.
Yoga and meditation are on the rise in the US. In 2002, about 6% of adults practiced some form of yoga, today it is closer to 18%, with over 36 million US adults practicing regularly, and about 80 million expected to try it at least once a year. It is a big business as well; each year close to seventeen billion dollars is spent on classes, clothing, equipment and accessories. Among current practitioners, 86% say they get a strong sense of mental clarity through yoga, and over 90% said they see it as a form of meditation.
Meditation itself, is also on the rise, with 9% of adults in the US claiming they practice some form of meditation. Meditation is often mingled with mindfulness and there is an annual four billion dollar industry promoting mindfulness; magazines, apps, and books (Amazon has over 100,000 books on mindfulness). Mindfulness has been injected into almost every area of life, from straight meditation to eating, walking, and even showering. Practitioners of mindfulness, meditation and yoga all claim that it gives them a greater appreciation of life, a more open and innovative mind, and a higher degree of serenity and calm.
It is therefore interesting that some recent psychological studies indicate that the contemporary yoga and meditation practices actually inflate people’s ego and can even create narcissistic tendencies. In one study conducted by the University of Southampton in the UK, researchers tracked ninety-three students over fifteen weeks, and regularly gave them self-assessment tests. When trying to judge self-enhancement which is the psychological term for an inflated sense of self-regard, the standard test is to ask people how they compare to the average person, and in this case, they were asked to compare themselves to the average student in their yoga class. Additionally, they were given an inventory that assesses for narcissistic tendencies, by asking questions rate how much statements like “I will be well-known for the good deeds I do,” apply to them.
The findings indicate that when students were evaluated in the hour after their yoga session, they reported markedly higher levels of self-enhancement (ego). By twenty-four hours after the yoga session it dissipated.
A different study of people who practice meditation who were recruited from Facebook groups devoted to meditation, found similar results. When asked evaluate statements like “In comparison to the average person in this study, I am free from bias,” people who had meditated in the last twenty-four hours had a significantly higher level of self-enhancement. They saw this rise in ego happening in direct connection with a higher sense of well-being, which means that while people certainly feel better after meditation and yoga, it comes along with a bump in ego.
Lewis Richmond, a famous Buddhist writer admits that, “The act of sitting in silence, eyes closed or facing a wall, attention focused on the inner landscape of breath, body, and mental activity, could at least be characterized as self-absorbed.” He says that people who practice self-centered meditation are likely to become more self-interested. Yoga, which includes mastery of difficult poses can give people the additional feelings of self-enhancement when they contemplate that they can do things that most normal people can’t.
In a world where self-help, mindfulness, and being present have become prominent goals for tens of millions, we seem to be losing out on other-help, mindfulness of other people’s plight, and being present in other people’s lives and sharing in their burden.
It is interesting to note that of the 613 commandments in the Torah, only six of them are about regular mindsets, and the vast majority of them are about physically doing things that will increase your benefit to the world, either by actively benefiting others, or by connecting more deeply with G-d, the One who always actively benefits others.
If you want to become a better person, making cookies for a friend going through a messy divorce, or visiting your friend in the hospital, will do far more than getting into the Down Warrior pose. If you want to become more enlightened, learning Mussar, a rigorous curricula of self-development and accountability, will do more than staring at a wall while chanting Om or pushing all thoughts out of your mind.
This is not to say that staying fit is not important, doing yoga to stay in shape is not a bad thing, but when it becomes something that defines us, we are taking what should be a means (I need to be healthy so that I can benefit the world) and turning it into an ends.
There are a few forms of meditation in Judaism. The Mishna tells us that the great Sages used to meditate for an hour before praying, and an hour after praying. But that was not focused on simply clearing the mind to get centered, but rather on clearing the mind so that one could devote their entire mind to a higher purpose, namely connecting with G-d. After they prayed, they meditated again, and this time it was about how to take the inspiration they got during their service and put it to practice to benefit mankind and the world.
Additionally, there is also a concept of hisbodedus, being with oneself. There too the purpose was that one could ponder what parts of his life need improvement, and how they can implement change in real time upon coming out of hisbodedus. It is a means, not an end.
Our greatness comes through what we do for those outside of ourselves, not through getting deep into ourselves. You may have to climb inside your head occasionally to pull your full self out, but the goal is to get out, get going, and get doing. That’s real self mastery.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion we find what seems to be a bizarre sequence of events. For forty years in the desert, the Jewish people were miraculously provided with water from a well called Be’er Miriam, which was provided in the merit of Miriam, the sister of Moshe and Aaron. When she dies, the well dries up and, as could be expected, the Jewish people come to Moshe to complain. G-d tells Moshe to gather the Jews, and to speak to a rock which would then spout forth water, thus sanctifying G-d;s name in the eyes of the Jews.
Moshe gathers the people but, lo and behold, instead of speaking to the rock he hits it! G-d becomes upset with Moshe and declares that due to the fact that he failed to honor G-d in the eyes of the people by following G-d’s command, he will not be able to lead the Jews into Israel, and will die in the desert prior to their entry.
By now, I hope you’re scratching your head in disbelief and asking yourself the following three questions. #1 Why didn’t Moshe do what G-d told him to do? #2 Why does G-d care if the miracle comes through hitting the rock or through speaking to it – either way, watching water spontaneously spurt forth from a rock is quite a miracle? #3 Why is G-d punishing Moshe in a manner which will hurt the entire nation, and not in a way which will affect only him?
If we look back to Genesis 3:24, we see that after G-d removes Adam from the Garden of Eden, He places “the blade of the turning sword” at the entrance to prevent man from forcing his way into Eden and eating from the Tree of Life. This marks a very significant notch on the timeline of human history. G-d’s original plan was to have the world run by His word alone. He would command, and humans would listen. This was proven as a non-feasible method when Adam disregarded G-d’s word and ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
At that time, G-d changed the entire order of the world so it would rule not by His word, but by the sword. At first G-d had said, “Don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge.” Now G-d prevented people from eating that which they were not supposed to eat by placing a sword in the way. Ever since then, the entire history of man has been: this group conquered this group, and this civilization destroyed that one etc. etc. (I taught high school history for 8 years and can testify to the veracity of the above statement.)
The Jews are now about to enter the land of Israel after having spent 40 years living a spiritual existence in which they were sustained by spiritual food. They are on such a high level that G-d wants to restore the world to its previous exalted state in which it follows the word, not the sword. He therefore commands Moshe to speak to the rock in front of all the Jews so that they should see that the word of G-d is that which will be the new mode of conducting world affairs, and even nature itself.
Moshe, however, having witnessed so many of the Jew’s rebellions and failings, didn’t feel that they were ready to live on such a lofty plane where they would be expected to follow the word of G-d to the T. Therefore, he hits the rock, symbolizing that the Jews should retain the status quo of living in a world run by the sword. Even though Moshe did this to benefit the Jews, ultimately, it showed a lack of faith on his part in the Jewish people’s ability to live at a higher state. G-d responded by telling him that he would not lead the Jews into Israel, because a leader who doesn’t fully believe in his people will never be able to get them to the next level.
The lesson for us is clear. If we want to inspire others and become leaders anywhere – in our workplaces, families, schools, or even Little League teams – we have to truly believe in the people we are trying to lead. That will inspire them to live up to the ideals we set for them. Furthermore, it sets out the Jewish role in the world as the people who are supposed to return this world to one in which it is the Word and not the sword that shapes the destiny of mankind.
This week’s parsha, Chukas, begins with the laws of ritual impurity contracted by contact with a corpse. Corpses impart impurity to those who come in contact with them because they represent the loss of potential as life equals potential. Capability being wasted is the essence of impurity, just as potential being actualized is the essence of purity. The Torah describes the purification process afer contact with a corpse, which involves being sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of a completely red heifer. This mitzvah is considered the quintessential chok, a law we can’t understand. The most puzzling aspect of this law is that the pure person who prepares the ashes that will purify the impure person, ends up becoming impure himself. It is important for humans to accept that we cannot fully understand G-d. By keeping mitzvos we don’t fully understand we show that we live as we do not just because we think it’s moral or healthy, but because G-d told us to.
The Torah now shifts its narrative forward by close to forty years. The years that the Jews wandered in the desert were peaceful and relatively uneventful, and this is the first mention of the events that occurred to them at the end of their wandering. The Torah describes the death of Miriam and the subsequent drying up of the Well of Miriam which had provided the Jews with water for all the years they were in the desert. It is at this point that G-d tells Moshe to speak to the rock and bring forth water – Moshe hits the rock instead. G-d then punishes Moshe by not allowing him to lead the nation into Israel.
Even though Moshe knows he will die before the Jews entered Israel, he does not try to delay them, but continues to help them get to the Holy Land ASAP. The path to Israel is blocked by the nation of Edom. G-d instructs Moshe to ask the Edomites if the Jews could peacefully traverse their land to reach Israel, but Edom refuses. Even though the Jews would later invade a different country when the inhabitants didn’t allow them peaceful access to Israel, this time G-d commands them to simply travel around Edom rather than fight them, as they are their cousins. (Edom is descended from Esau, brother of Jacob.)
It is on the border of the ancient country of Edom, that Aaron, the Kohen Gadol and brother of Moshe, passes away. (Aaron’s grave is still around, at the top of a mountain directly above the world famous ancient city of Petra in Jordan. I was there, and I could see the little building in which the tomb lies. Due to time constraints, I was unable to go up, since it is a 3 hour donkey ride each way. However, I was able to look at his gravesite and pray. It was quite an awe-inspiring moment.)
After Aaron’s death, the job of Kohen Gadol is given to his son Elazar. The entire Jewish nation mourns Aaron for thirty days, something rare for someone in such a high position. Aaron merited this incredible honor by devoting his life to bringing peace between man and his fellow. (Note to Self: If I want people to mourn me when I die, and not rejoice privately, be nice to others and promote peace in the community, and then people will actually miss me!)
After the nations see the Jews mourning Aaron’s death, they know that a leader of the Jews died and figure that this would probably be a good time to attack them. So along comes their arch-enemy Amalek, and attacks the Jews, while they are down and unprepared. (Same modus operandi as the Yom Kippur War, they never stop being slime!) But G-d delivers the Jews from their hands, and they made short work of them.
Then, believe it or not, some of the Jews complain again about the manna (the spiritual food they ate in the desert). This time, G-d sends serpents which come into the camp and start inflicting fatal bites. G-d tells Moshe to make a copper serpent, put it on a high pole, and to tell anyone who was bitten to look up at it and be healed. (The sages say that the serpent wasn’t what healed, rather, when the Jews looked heavenward to gaze at the serpent, they remembered their Father in heaven and repented, and then deserved to be saved)
The Jews travel on toward Israel. Two lepers who are at the back of the camp notice a strange sight (no, not glowing discs in the horizon), and bring it to the attention of the Jews. Upon investigation, the Jews discover the following story. The Canaanites, aware that the Jews were marching toward their country with the intent of settling there, tried to ambush the Jews, They hid in caves along one side of a thin canyon waiting for the Jews to pass through, after which they would attack and mercilessly slaughter them (it seems like no one is willing to take us on head to head – they all have some sneaky plan!). What they didn’t know was that the Clouds of Glory traveling before the Jews prepared the way for them by flattening out their path.
As the Jews approached the canyon, the Cloud squished the two sides of the canyon together, thus making all the Canaanites waiting in ambush into mashed potatoes. The Jews would have never even known about this if not for the two lepers who were walking far behind the camp and saw the river turn red with the blood of our would-be attackers. When the Jews see this sight, they make a special song of thanks because they realize that there are countless times that G-d protects them without them even knowing about it. (In Israel, the army claims that 95% of terrorist attempts are foiled without the knowledge of the citizens. That shows that even today we don’t realize how much G-d is protecting us!)
The last part of the parsha tells us the story of Sichon, a kingdom to the west of the Holy Land. The Jews ask the people of Sichon permission to cross through their land peacefully on their journey to Israel. Sichon, emboldened by Edom’s refusal (which worked, but only because G-d commanded us to leave them alone), reject their request and even mass their troops at the border, as if to say, “over my dead body!” This is exactly what the Jews do. They beat them in battle and move calmly towards Israel over their dead bodies. That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: To the timid and hesitating, everything is impossible because it seems so. ~ Sir Walter Scott
Random Fact of the Week: Karaoke means “empty orchestra” in Japanese.
Funny Line of the Week: “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”
Have a Phenomenal Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham