What does it mean to be "mindful," to truly slow down and pay attention to what's happening in our daily lives? This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs explores this question through Parashat Misphatim when God beckons Moses to not only come up to a mountain, but to also "be" there.
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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten minutes Of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashah Mishpatim, and he teaches us about what it really means to pay attention, to lasim lev, to really give of your heart.
[Rabbi RIck Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on Parashah Mishpatim from the Book of Exodus. Mishpatim, literally sentences in a very literal sense, laws in a more generic sense, and it has a very wide collection of laws in the area of civil, and criminal, and ritual. And then, towards the very end of the Parashah, the portion, in Chapter 24, Verse 12, it says, "The Eternal said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and be there."
I gotta just do the Hebrew because it's really important to get these words. V'yomer Adonai El Moshe God said to Moses. Aliy-Eli, from the word aliyah. ah-oh-leh, to go up. Come up to me, Ha-har, to the mountain. And then, it says, V'yeh sham. The V'yeh sham feels superfluous. Why do you say, come up to me on the mountain and be there?
And it opens a door of interpretation, which is very, very fruitful, which is sometimes going somewhere is not the same as actually being there. I don't know where you are right now, but very often whatever we're doing, we're thinking about the thing next we have to do or the thing we did just a little while ago that's still in us. So the idea of coming up the mountain, the V'yeh sham, and actually be there is a very challenging spiritual challenge not only for Moses, but for all of us. And not just in the peak moments, like being on top of a mountain, but in the day to day quotidian lives that we lead. To be present in all of it.
If I could just remember a few chapters back in Exodus-- in Chapter 3 verses 1 through 4-- we have one of the other great teachings about mindfulness. Again, mindfulness, very contemporary word, but mindfulness, this idea of being present not just at certain moments, but in a much more emphatic way each and every day in each and every moment. So it's that great story. You know the story.
Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. And there he is. And all of a sudden, an angel of the eternal appears to Moses in a blazing fire out of a bush. And Moses looks, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.
Now, we just hear that story, and we kind of go check, I know that story. I heard it before. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it. I got it. What else? What else? No, no. Hold on a minute. Just think. Again, only some people have actually underscored this. How long do you have to look at a bush burning to know it's not being consumed? You know, tumbleweed in the desert can catch on fire. It's not actually a big, noteworthy thing.
The question is Moses really intently watches this bush burning, and he watches so intently that he actually notices that the bush burns, but is not being consumed by the fire. And the question for the podcast today is, how mindful do you have to be to actually know that something is as miraculous as the burning bush is taking place if you rush through, or I rush through my life so busy getting from one thing to the next that I actually don't ever arrive at each of those moments, each of those things? V'yeh sham and be there.
There is a beautiful phrase used in Jewish spiritual teaching called you yishuv hada'at. Yishuv from settled, or adat, knowledge. It can mean sometimes peace of mind, but actually means settling into the present moment with awareness, being awake to each moment.
Now, you've heard in previous podcasts, where we've talked a bit about meditation. And meditation is a very powerful way to come to awareness, to come to that mindful sense that each moment is laden with possibility and not to think about yesterday or tomorrow, but right here, right now, even to pay attention to one's breath.
But what I'm describing in terms of mindful Jewish living is really the idea not only of meditation, but of carrying that into all the moments of our life. There's a beautiful powerful book by Jonathan Slater, who was my teacher at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. I was part of the first rabbinic cohort back many years ago. And he wrote a phenomenal volume called Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice.
In this volume-- and I really recommend it-- he says, in meditation, we develop a sensitivity to how distraction, avoidance, resistance, fear attachment, avarice feel in our bodies, and we can later bring the sensitivity to the rest of our lives as well. With these tools, he says, we can hope to be able to wake up in the midst of breakfast, a business meeting, speaking with our child, and so know fully the truth of that moment and be wholly present.
So what he's saying is that the practice of meditation is meant to spill over into every other moment of our lives, to help us to live in that much more awake sensibility. He, actually, and others have noted-- there's an amazing professor at Harvard, Richard Davidson, who wanted to understand the neuropsychology of mindfulness. What goes on when we are mindful in our living? And he was challenged by the Dalai Lama, who knew he was working on his PhD at Harvard. And the Dalai Lama said, use the tools you use to study anxiety, fear, and depression to research the positive qualities of life, such as kindness and compassion. That's exactly what Professor Davidson did.
And he found, amazingly, that meditation can rewire the human brain via neuroplasticity, the brain's capacity to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. I know you're thinking, Rabbi Jacobs, you are so out of your league here. You know, I'm not a neuroscientist. I got that, but this is pretty staggering material because it's not just a spiritual teacher using the rudiments of Jewish spirituality, but actually science actually corroborates that something happens when we meditate. And we almost reorder and clarify the way in which we even think.
And it goes on. Richard Davidson does to say that through the act of meditating, we actually learn to live mindfully. Says the capacity to be fully present for people to be attentive and to be able to take perspectives other than our own. So when we're really awake, when we're really mindful, when we're really paying attention, all this happens.
Now, I just used the word paying attention, and we're talking about mindfulness. In Hebrew, the word pay attention is lasim lev, literally to put lev, to put heart to something. And it means you've really put your heart and thinking in a particular moment. It actually goes back to the Bible. You have in Second Samuel Chapter 18, Verse 2. In the opening, it says, this is another way to know if someone cares about you. Do they put yah-simo lev Do they put their heart into relating to you. That's a way of caring.
So the idea of being awake is about paying attention, and I love that we have our tradition of saying blessings. So when you're having a meal that's congruent with your values, whatever that is-- for some people, that's veganism. For some, it's kashrut. For some, it's I don't eat certain food products that I don't like the way they were created. But what blessings do I say? Do I take a moment and notice what I'm eating? And I have to say, I don't know about you, but oftentimes, I'm eating breakfast in a hurry or lunch in a hurry. Sometimes, not even sitting down. If I'm sitting down, I'm not actually paying attention to eating. I'm reading something, or putting my head something else I'm going to do during the day. And I remember this teaching because you're going to hear this podcast around the time of Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees.
It was a couple of years ago. I was leading a healing service, and it was Tu BiShvat. And Rabbi Shira Milgrom and I were bringing dimensions of Tu BiShvat to spiritual practice. And remember, I asked the people to do something that we do Tu BiShvat, which is to eat certain fruits of the trees, but to do it the way Jon Kabat-Zinn, this amazing researcher and father of much of the mindfulness movements. He said to his patients in the hospital, chew this. You could take an almond, you can do a raisin, you can take something that you like, but you have to chew this so slowly that you actually have the sensation of the crunching, the way it feels in your jaw, the way the flavors feel in your mouth. And I don't know about you, but I can eat a raisin in less than a quarter of a second. I don't even have to chew it. Boom, it's gone.
And when you chew some fruit of the tree for what's close to a minute, you have a completely different experience of it. And he says this is actually paying attention. So it's not meditating as in sitting quietly early in the morning or late at night, which I do, and it's a beautiful thing. This is the meditation of eating. It's the meditation of walking. It's the meditation of the day to day.
And how do we find the ability to awaken and to be aware? So friends, I don't know if you're going to see a burning bush today. If you do, the key would be to look at it long enough to know if it's being consumed. But my guess is if you're going to have a revelation, it's probably not going to be as famous as that one. But what are the revelations that could happen today just by paying attention? To put attention, to put heart, and to be awake, and to be mindful.
And as the Torah portion, Mishpatim, says in that beautiful passage from Chapter 24 when Moses is going to be reminded by God. I don't want you just coming up this mountain I want you to really be here. People around us, they're counting on us really being there when they cry out, or they are in pain, or want to share some joy. If we're awake, we actually notice that. If we're caught up in our own internal stories and all the things we worry and focus on, we actually can't focus on anyone else. So God needs to remind Moses. Well, my guess is we're not in the same category as Moses, so let's be reminded to be awake, to be mindful, and who knows what will happen if we are.
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On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat.