By Dr. Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels
We have just returned from a powerful retreat where it was wonderful to see some of you. We had the opportunity on retreat to be with our experience, such as the craziness of our comparing minds (ie. s/he is a better/worse meditator than I am) and the truth of the ownerlessnesss of our experience (ie. it’s just a thought, I don’t need to identify with it).
In R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk’s teaching this week on Balak he addresses precisely these two issues through one of the most well known verses of the Torah with which we begin our prayers each morning in synagogue, Ma tovu / How goodly are your tents O Jacob. Rashi’s famous interpretation, based on the Talmud (Bava Batra 60a) is that the beauty Balaam saw in the tents of Israel was their considerateness of each other and their modesty, making sure that their tent entrance did not face the entrance of another. The Vitebsker re-reads this interpretation understanding it as blessing Israel for two extraordinary qualities, which both may be described as a kind of humility or modesty, hence echoing the original meaning of Rashi’s interpretation and the Talmudic text. The Vitebsker claims Balak is blessing Israel for letting go of ownership and for letting go of the comparing mind.
And what a blessing these are. How different would our lives be if we were no longer obsessively claiming ownership over our achievements, qualities, thoughts or emotions? How much freer would we be? How irrelevant would praise or blame be if that for which we were being praised or blamed was not really about us, wasn’t owned by us? How much less tension, expectation and fear would we experience? How liberating would it be to let go of thoughts like “I’m better/smarter/faster/stronger than” or “I’m worse than,” “I’m unworthy” or “I’m underappreciated” or “I’m luckier/more blessed” or “I’m unlucky/less blessed” in any particular way?
It is hard to see, but we don’t own any of it. In the simplest way, we have never done anything ourselves. Countless people, parents, teachers, family, friends, colleagues, doctors have contributed to every success we have ever had. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman until humans learn how to give birth to themselves. This doesn’t mean that we can’t manifest better or worse qualities, compassion or hatred, it just means they aren’t ours. Our work is to help them manifest through us, not to own them or control them. They are just another aspect of the divine becoming revealed through our lives.
It is challenging to affirm this understanding because we want to hold onto something. We want acclimation and recognition because it makes us feel safe and important. But it is helpful to ask these genuine questions: What is success? What is power? What is wealth? What do we truly want for ourselves? What do we want for our children? What is important? Do we get that by holding on or by letting go? What gifts do we really want to give our children? What do we want to model for them?
It doesn’t mean we don’t strive for change and to improve ourselves and our world. It means that we don’t do it with the tight, neurotic illusion of control and ownership. It also doesn’t mean we aren’t individuals, that we don’t have our own particularity. In fact, just the opposite. Recognizing that we are not owners, that there is no self who owns our qualities, thoughts or emotions, means that our particularity is radical. It is not just this body-mind-heart-soul it is also moment to moment and day to day. Every day we are different. Every day we must explore anew as to what will actually help us grow this day. We are adjured not to get lost in old habits which aren’t effective anymore for where we are at this moment.
It is an important warning. For those of us who have been walking the spiritual path, it is easy to get stuck where we were, to rely on old strategies and responses that have worked in the past, even when they are no longer the most effective response. Often we do so because those strategies are tied up with our sense of self, “I’m a mindfulness teacher, so mindfulness must be the correct response, because it must be the best practice, because it is what I teach.” Maybe not. Maybe what I need at this moment is to scream and release. Maybe it is to analyze and reflect. Maybe it is to let go and trust the natural movement through the body to lead you. I know not getting caught in my ‘go-to’ practices, even skillful ones, has been an important part of my spiritual growth in the last few years.
Such an attitude means that sentences such as “that isn’t for me” or “that doesn’t work for me” are never true. They are based on an illusion of stability, of ownership of certain qualities and ways of being, that lock us down and trap us in an illusion of who we are. Maybe it wasn’t for me, maybe it didn’t work for me, but maybe it will now. Maybe it won’t, but we need to make the decision from a place of authenticity, which is a place of the truth of this moment, not from a place of relying on old judgments and conclusions. That is our task, to be authentic. To not fall into the illusions of ownership and comparison, but to live up to Balaam’s blessing, to be who we truly are.
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This teaching is an excerpt from Rav James’ weekly teaching for “Torah Study for the Soul,” a year-long text study program offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. For the full teachings and to receive teachings in your inbox each week, you may still register for this program at a pro-rated cost.