By Rabbi Dr. James Jacobson-Maisels
Judaism, for the most part, prescribes behavior; not thoughts or feelings. For a religion of laws, this is wise, as how can one demand that a person think or feel a certain way? But R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in his teaching on Ki Tisa challenges this approach and argues that while only behavior can be commanded, acting properly is not a sufficient test of who we are, of our spiritual progress and of who we may become. In our spiritual practice, we need to work on the roots of the ways we manifest in the world. This, he says is the meaning of ki tisa, colloquially a command to “take census,” but literally the “lifting up of the head,” understood through his teaching as the elevating and healing of harmful mental patterns.
On the one hand, if we do not work on these roots, then the ways we manifest in the world for good may be unhealthy or unreliable. For instance, an individual who has never stolen, may have not done so for fear of the shame of being caught. Or perhaps he does not lack what he might otherwise steal. What happens to our righteous behavior, though, when our situation changes and suddenly certain desires are beyond our financial reach? What happens when our context changes and taking things from the weak is supported by society? How clearly can we hold onto our virtue when it is counter to, rather than in line with, societal expectations?
On the other hand, if we are trying to change harmful life patterns, that change cannot be permanent if we act only on the level of the behavior itself. Rather the root and cause of that pattern must be treated and transformed for true change to happen. We have to be willing to truly investigate the source of our behavior and literally uproot the pattern at its foundation through our mindfulness, our compassionate awareness.
When we do this, compassion flourishes, both because we start to heal those diseased roots which are blocking our compassion, but also because we come to understand that we are not fundamentally different from those who act harmfully. The roots of those acts, the unhealthy patterns of heart and mind, are present in us, as well. And, if we had not been lucky enough to be born in our particular set of circumstances, we may have become the sinners.
I once saw a documentary about an organization which aimed to stop violence in poor gang-infested areas by teaching youth in schools to refrain from responding with violence despite that kind of response being socially acceptable. I recall an interview with a middle school boy describing how when insulted, he was tempted to find a gun with which to shoot the other youth, but was able to restrain himself and be “the bigger man.” I saw his frustration and woundedness, as well as his tremendous courage and strength. I understood, too, if I had been a young person in his middle school (a place where responding with violence was the norm) rather than mine, it is entirely possible I would have shot someone; particularly given the confusion, pain, resentment and fear I experienced in middle school. It was only luck, the happenstance of birth, which did not place me in that situation.
The invitation then is to heal these roots, not by rejecting them or pretending they are not there, but by becoming aware of them, understanding them, loving them and embracing them. Therefore, disarming and liberating them. This is how we lift up and out of our harmful patterns. This is the meaning of ki tisa. This new approach cuts off the chain reaction of our habitual patterns, resulting in a re-orientation of ourselves towards the truth, towards divinity. It allows us to leave the trap of idolatry and become true servants of the divine.
Download the full teaching (PDF): 21 Ki Tisa – Pri HaAretz
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