Torah Reflections – June 12-18, 2016

Naso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Freedom From The Yoke of Desires  

Mindfulness is often described as the art of being present to each moment, of paying attention to each experience in our everyday life. Interestingly, paying attention in Hebrew is “lasim lev,” meaning “to place heart.” The Hebrew enjoins us to pour our heart into every moment we live. Yet there is an added dimension of the practice of mindfulness; that of intentionality. Mindfulness is not only paying attention to every moment but also entering into every moment with kavanah, with sharp intentionality. I add the word “sharp” here, because the root of the word kavanahimplies aiming, strict directionality, one-pointedness. Depending on the specific spiritual practice, different kavanot, different intentions can be used. Our particularkavanah will correspond to our personal answer to the question: “What is the purpose of my engaging in this practice?”

In this week’s Torah portion we read about a specific and highly intentional spiritual practice; that of the Nazarite Vow. For a limited amount of time, one vows to renounce all worldly pleasures and passions and become a Nazarite, which in Hebrew means “set aside” or “consecrated.” Rabbi Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1164) comments: “Know that all human beings are slaves to their passions, the true king and master, he who wears the genuine crown of sovereignty upon his head, is he who is free from the rule of passions.” The kavanah, in the Nazarite case, was to free oneself from desires, and cravings. Though he seems to support the potency of the Nazarite practice, Ibn Ezra and the overwhelming majority of our rabbis since Talmudic times saw such a vow as undesirable. Our masters frowned upon asceticism and disapproved of self-denial. Not only did they object to any restrictions above and beyond the prohibitions of the Torah (seeing it as an expression of arrogance rather than humility,) but saw such practice as denying the abundant goodness provided by God through Creation. Even though the kavanah had some merit, the practice itself was deemed counterproductive. Our rabbis believed that abstinence only leads to more cravings and fuels more desires.

Perhaps the answer resides midway between these two opposing views. Though we find in our days that abstinence is one necessary aspect of combating addiction, mindful living might, in fact, be another part of the answer to the problem the Nazarite Vow sought to conquer. In this case I would offer that our kavanah for mindfulness practice be: “To be present to what is, just as it is.” When we are in the moment with all our heart, and with the kavanah to let whatever is arising in our awareness be what it is, without judging, without comparing, without wanting, without even naming or labeling our experience; then all desires cease to be, all cravings disappear, all attachments dissolve. We can even be mindfully present to our desires and our cravings themselves, letting them arise in consciousness. And as we do so, holding them as object in awareness, we are no longer identified with them and they lose their power over us. We can watch them arise, with curiosity and interest, but we no longer automatically react to their dictates. In that moment, like Ibn Ezra said a thousand years ago we are “free from the rule of passions,” liberated from the yoke of the misery of our endlessly unfulfilled desires.

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About Rabbi Olivier

Olivier BenHaim is the rabbi for Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue. Olivier is also a husband and Amalya and Lior's papa. He likes sunny days in Seattle, hiking, cuddling with his kids, having friends over for dinner and crunchy chocolate chip cookies.

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