Sunday, April 24, 2011

Transformation Through Fear

Seven Habits of Transformation, Part II

By Shimona Tzukernik

It happened on a Saturday night. My close friend and I had been out for the evening and were returning back to my apartment. When I pulled in front of the building, there was a parking spot directly opposite the entrance. Not bad for New York!

She needed to make a phone call so I told her to just run into the building while I parked the car.

All I did was angle back into the space, gather my purse and close the side mirror. No dawdling. But by the time I arrived upstairs, my husband had already called the police. On her way up the garden path, a drunk hiding in the bushes had tried to grab her.

She pushed him away, buzzed frantically, run into the building locking him out and then jumped up the five flights of stairs to our apartment.

The police came but the lowlife had taken off leaving only a bottle of gin behind.

We later discovered that that night in South Africa both my brother-in-laws and a bunch of nephews were held up at gunpoint on their way home from synagogue. One was made to lie face down on the ground with a gun to his neck. Miraculously no-one was physically harmed.

Hearing the news of their ordeal gave me the chills. I couldn't help wondering if the attack on my friend in New York had taken the edge off any greater hurt to my family across the ocean.

While my friend's initial shock subsided, she was left fearful of going out alone, especially in the evening. I encouraged her to "just try it," knowing she needed to make the shift. But she wasn't ready. Then one day, whilst working on a script for a childrens CD, I was reminded of a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement.

His parents were childless for many years and Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem was born to them in their old age. But when he was only five, his father took ill.

The little boy was summoned to his father's bedside. His father then shared with him what was to become the holy Baal Shem's mission statement.

"Yisrael, my beloved son, remember these two things your entire life. Firstly, fear no one, nothing of this world. Fear only Gd, the Gd of heaven and earth. Secondly, love every single Jew with all your heart and soul."

And then he was gone.

As I worked on the script with a friend, I knew I had an answer for my friend. That evening I shared with her the following thought. Gd has given us a vast and subtle array of emotional abilities. In grade school we're taught the basics are "mad, sad, glad…" I forget the rest. The real life list goes on and on.

From the perspective of Kabbalah, we have six core emotions, the most fundamental of which are love, respect and empathy. And although we may experience some more than others, we're assured of one thing: if our Creator put the emotion into the world, we're going to feel it sooner or later!

Gd created many feelings. There's no way to go through life without experiencing them. You're never going to be able to escape jealousy, anger, desire, feeling small. The secret is to have those feelings play themselves out over the chords of your Gdly soul.

The same applies to the attribute of gevurah, fear. It's coming your way no matter what. The only thing you get to choose is in which context you'll feel it. Gd wants you to fear Him. What that really means is He wants you to appreciate His greatness and minimize your sense of being independent of Him. You can choose to reject this fear of Gd – in which case you'll fear everything else.

People all over the world do that every day. They're afraid of not having enough money, of missing the bus, of speaking in public. Instead of letting go to the One who created everything, they somehow think it's a safer bet to take things into their own hands and manage their lives 'independently.' But that leads to fear-driven behavior. At the highest level of the chain we could call that neurotic behavior – putting our real fears into things like the bus and having to give a presentation at work. Down the chain there are states like anxiety disorder…paranoia…a whole slew of painful ways to live.

Your other choice is to fear Gd. If that's your guiding light, you'll be freed of all other anxiety! I don't mean to say you shouldn't be responsible and cautious where necessary. What I am saying is that when you experience healthy fear, or awe, then your other worries dissipate and disappear."

She got it. The story of the Baal Shem Tov was the segue for her to venture out on the streets alone.

This basic element of fear or awe can also be framed as hatred or opposition. It doesn't only function in isolation but plays itself out together with all our other emotional attributes. Take it in combo with love for example.

The animal soul loves selfish pleasure and gratification, the Gdly soul loves – well Gd, and goodness and truth.

Fear within love then is the extreme dislike of your beloved's enemy. In unholy form that means you hate anyone or thing that stands in the way of getting what you want. Maybe you hate the laws of keeping kosher because they deny your palette the cheeseburger it craves, or the person who stands for truth when you want to live in denial.

At the bottom of the barrel, this hatred born of love manifests as resentment of Torah and even of Gd Himself. After all, He's the one standing between you and the object of your desire. Gd is the one who requires of you to relinquish your ego, and none of us is giving it up too quickly.

Its holy form is a resistance to anything that obstructs Gd's presence being revealed in the world. In other words, it's a hatred of evil because evil opposes Gdliness. When experienced strongly, this fear within love prompts us to action on behalf of what is holy and good and true.

America has been described as "a land of loving-kindness." It was founded on the principles of sanctity of life, a right to freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Its democratic constitution has drawn immigrants from the world over and for the large part they've been welcomed and treated with fairness. With that cultural underpinning, fear is somewhat of a dirty word to our ears. It brings to mind oppression, estrangement, abuse.

Sometimes this is accurate. Animalistic behavior that intimidates others brings all these in its wake. However there's the Gdly side of the coin. Whereas love is expansive, fear is contractive. We need both impulses – sugar and salt, attraction and repulsion, connection and boundaries.

Life without boundaries or awe would overpower and destroy us. Think of rain. The blessing of water falling to earth allows us to live but if it came down in sheets, all growing things would die. We need the spaces between the water that form raindrops. Those spaces are a metaphor for the Kabbalistic attribute of gevurah – or awe, fear, respect, discipline, opposition.

We need to temper our love and passion. If not, we're likely to steamroll others with our emotions and not allow them space to be themselves. We run the risk of tripping over our own feet in the heat of our passion and vision for a better tomorrow. The blessing of rain is in the spaces.

When we incorporate restraint into our lives (whether its origin is fear, awe, respect or opposition,) we counter-intuitively open another realm of possibility and actually enhance our loving connections. Certainly unholy fear is to be avoided at all costs but holy awe and respect is to be embraced. It frees us of our neuroses and creates the space for love to flourish.

When my friend was attacked, I was irate at the landlord. I called to let him know what happened and ask if he could cut away those unkempt bushes that form an apology for a "garden." His response was, "Ma'am I'm not responsible for every quack in the city and there's a law against cutting down trees in this country!"

Slam. Conversation over.

Was that hatred born of unhealthy love or just plain hatred born of hatred? I'm not sure. The bushes are still there, a sculptural reminder of a lesson learned. They gave me and my friend the opportunity to explore the full spectrum of a feeling we tend to reject, and more healthfully incorporate contraction into our relationships. I guess the bushes gave us rain.

This article was origionally posted on

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Transformation Through Love

Sefirat Haomer, Part I

By: Shimona Tzukernik

It's a memory I'll never forget. Maybe I was eleven. As part of a group, we were taken to an orphanage. To call it bare would be an understatement. My memories are fuzzy but the leitmotif was of concrete. In an open area outside the building, children milled around without speaking. There were no toys and nothing of color.

Off-center lay a toddler on the ground. No blanket, no sibling, no adult. He had a cut on his ear and flies bumped into each other prying for blood. He was so deeply alone in the world, I felt it almost a violation to pick him up.

Years later, I would think of him. With all the love in the world, why do so many of us go through life bereft of, or yearning for, it? What is so compelling about love that we'd give our all to get it? And yet, what makes us afraid of giving – or even receiving – it?

Imagine pooling the full range of human emotion into one pot and then boiling away the excess, releasing all the subtleties and intersecting points and overlays into the atmosphere. We'd come down to seven core ways to feel. Seven base elements of how to emotionally experience the world and give expression to that. And if we further boiled those ingredients, we'd arrive at one essential ability – love.

Love and oneness are bound together. Love is the one point from which all other feelings spring. In Hebrew the numerical value for love, ahava, is thirteen. So too is the value of one, echad. So love and oneness are bound together. When we say, "G‑d is One," we're also saying, "G‑d is Love."

We yearn deeply for love because it connects us to G‑d, to others, to creation. Love is the cosmic glue which reassures us that the apparent multiplicity of creation is just that – apparent. It brings to consciousness the truth that despite the bits and pieces, we are all part of a greater whole that is defined by goodness. In this sense, our yearning to love and be loved is an outgrowth of the even deeper longing to belong to the world, to experience the underlying oneness of reality.

That explains why we fear the absence of love. To be unloved, or rejected, or neglected is to be outcast from that pool of Oneness. It's not so much the immediate pain of the rejection that hurts as the sense of being alone in the universe that is most painful. It's been said that neglect is the worst form of abuse. Children who are neglected have a more difficult time healing than even those who were physically or sexually abused. Because at least in the latter, however horrific the experience, there is a relating – albeit distorted and immoral – to another.

Neglect is the worst form of abuse. Neglect, by contrast, communicates, "You don't exist. At least not in my world." And if there's even one place where we are not truly present, then at an essential level we don't exist at all.1 Without love, we become isolated beings randomly bumping through life. We slide into the head space that says, "The world exists independently of G‑d. Thus all things are existentially detached. I am alone."

It is precisely this delusion that we are born to negate. We come into a world of plurality and our souls' mission is to peel the façade, pull back the curtain of cosmic amnesia, and reveal that all is One. In this sense, love lies at the core of purpose.

That's also why we're afraid to give and receive it. In all arenas of life, we tend to recoil from the most important things because at least then, we can say, "I haven't gone there yet." Regardless of whether it's procrastinating before sitting down to write an essay, taking on jobs that form a comfortable partition between us and what we're really supposed to be doing, avoiding resolving a conflict that lies at the heart of our lives and the like, we are creating smokescreens that protect us from potential failure. Sure, we complain about not having the time or head space to really tackle what matters most. But that's a ruse. Deep down, avoiding our key tasks cuts us the psychic slack of being able to tell ourselves that we haven't yet undertaken the mission so there's still hope.

If we want a shot at robust loving relationships, we need to understand that our yearning for connection can take on one of two faces. The first is holy and generates true bonding. The latter looks like connection but brings only separation and pain in its wake. The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers presents two such instances:

A love that is dependent on something - when the thing comes to an end, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything will never cease. Which is a love that is dependent on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one which is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.

The stories that are being alluded to here are Biblical.

Amnon and Tamar were half siblings of royal lineage. "Amnon lusted to the point of illness for his sister Tamar…He overpowered her and violated her."2 He acted out of selfish desire even at the expense of another person's most intimate life. His own craving allowed him to lose sight of Tamar as a whole person and see her as a mere object whose purpose was to satisfy him. "Afterward, Amnon despised her with a great hatred. His hatred was even greater than the love he had felt for her."3

The second story is also about a prince. Jonathon was heir to the throne of his father Saul. David, also born of royal lineage, was the paragon of "underdog." Rejected throughout his youth, he was nonetheless to rise in stature, ultimately assuming the throne. The two became great friends. When we can no longer tolerate our failings, we fling them out onto others. Saul, perceiving the radical David as a threat to not only his own position but Judaism as a whole, attempted to have him killed. One would expect Jonathan to be filled with the same animosity. Yet counter intuitively he was the one who stood by his friend, saving his life and even compromising his own relationship with his father. In direct contrast to Amnon, Jonathan acted out of selflessness even at his own expense.

In the case of Amnon and Tamar the love, being based on something, disappeared once Amnon got what he wanted. At a deeper level, because it was founded on an external criterion, it was not real to begin with. Certainly Amnon turned on Tamar largely as a projection of his own self-hatred and shame over the despicable act. When we can no longer tolerate our failings, we fling them out onto others. But he also hated her because the "love" was not love!

What he felt was really the need to feed his own ego. His hunger for connection wasn't about wanting to bond with another. Quite the contrary, he translated a craving for existential unity into one for physical pleasure.

We all do it at some level, albeit far removed from Amnon's conduct. Instead of taking the time and being prepared to do the soul-work entailed in setting aside the ego – the figment that we exist independently – we settle for surface quick-fixes that momentarily assuage our deep existential yearnings. Such an interaction can never truly fill our need. True love is about discovering the unity that constitutes existence. Rape is about separation. The interaction itself cries out, "I am alone and you are alone. There is no center, no G‑d and no meaning."

Apropos David and Jonathan by contrast, we find the exact opposite: a relationship born of all the ingredients for rivalry, hatred and separation became one of supra-rational love and connection. That is the most satisfying love of all. When we overcome conflict in a relationship, we mirror something of the love between these two friends. This love proclaims, "We have triumphed over the appearance of separation. Despite all that the world would seem to say, love and oneness pervade reality. We are part of that. More so, we are the catalysts who make it possible to know that truth!" When we give and receive healthy love, we experience something of redemption. Even more so, we actually hasten its coming.

All that we've said that applies with regard to humanistic love and our interpersonal relationships has an application to love of G‑d. Maimonides tells us that we are to love and serve G‑d independently of what we might hope to gain or lose from that. Put heaven and hell aside, for service of G‑d is not about the reward or punishment. It's not even about becoming an enlightened, refined human being!

When we give and receive healthy love, we experience something of redemption. Sometimes we're called upon to do things that run counter to what we think would enhance our spiritual wellbeing. We're required to put aside the texts, the prayer book, interrupt the meditation for example, and go out and help a person in need. Regardless of the situation, Maimonides prompts us to let it all go and enter into a relationship with G‑d that is like white light. In that glow, we are not motivated by the colors of the rainbow but by the simple, undifferentiated, pure desire to be one with our Creator.

It may seem like a goal that is beyond our reach but the mystics teach us that through loving others, we will come to love G‑d. A story is told about a Rabbi who asked the Chassidic Rebbe Reb Avraham of Stretyn to give him the means to be G‑d fearing.

"I hear your spiritual remedies bring results," he said.

Reb Avraham responded, "I don't have a remedy for fear of Heaven but I do for love of G‑d."

"Fine," said the Rabbi. "Isn't love greater than fear?"

"The remedy for love of heaven," said the Rebbe, "is love of one's fellow. When you attain this, you will have attained the love of Heaven."

Why so? It all comes down to the same point. Our purpose is to love to the point that we discover unity. If we can do that even in the context of human relationships within this physical world that hides G‑d, we have certainly arrived at Divine love too.

Each of us holds an infinite wellspring of love to give and all the ability to receive and take it in. We can generate the kind of connections with others that we crave, both human and Divine. We need only to have the courage to delay gratification and go for the deep, real version. That kind of love expands the universe, allowing us to feel its infinite vastness. It also collapses reality into one indivisible point that contains the whole and where all of us are imbued with the pleasure and glow of life as it's meant to be.


1. This explains why our sages say that embarrassing someone is akin to murder. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that at most it obliterates the recipient of the shame from the inflictor's perspective? However, if I think so little of you as to nullify your value by embarrassing you, I'm saying you don't exist for me. And if you don't exist in my world, your presence in the universe as a whole is not only compromised – somewhere it is negated entirely.

2. Shmuel ll, 13:2;14

3. Shmuel ll, 13:15-16

This article was origionally posted on

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sign up for my Spirit Training Course!

I'm delighted to invite you to join me for the upcoming Spirit Training series in Long Island. Participants from the recent course unanimously said they'd recommend it to a friend; asked for more time; and said it had impacted their life in a tangible way.

To accommodate the many different requests, we'll be running a daytime and evening program each Tuesday between Pesach and Shavuot. That's five weeks of in-depth transformational Kabbalah-based coaching. Just select the time that suits you best.

Since I'll be in Eastern Long Island for the day, I am setting up appointments for private sessions as well. If you are interested in meeting with me, click here and my assistant will be in touch with you to schedule a time. You can use this time to deepen the work we do during the group sessions or you can opt to have your Soulprint taken. There's more info in the post script at the bottom of this post to help you decide if this is right for you.

These are the two options for the Spirit Training Series:

Midday in Brookville:
Date: Tuesdays May 3 - 31
Time: 12:30 - 2:00
Place: 1447 Cedar Swamp Road, Brookville, NY 11545
Cost: $150
Click here to sign up for the Brookville session

Evenings in Commack
Date: Tuesdays May 3 - 31
Time: 8:00 - 9:30pm
Place: 318 Veterans Highway, Commack, NY 11725
Cost: $150
Click here to sign up for the Commack session

I'm excited to spend time exploring, clarifying and discovering with you.

with blessings for a joyous and redemptive Pesach,

p.s. You may want to consider a private coaching session with me on one or more of the Tuesdays in May. You set the focus of the work we will do together. Whether it's working on a relationship; identifying your gifts and direction in life; dealing with a loss; or anything else in the pool of life, Kabbalah has answers that can dramatically change your understandings. It thereby opens up new opportunities for you, new ways of being that have been dormant within you. My approach is informed by decades of study of Jewish mysticism; twenty years of experience in helping people across the globe; intuition; a commitment to you being your highest and best self; and thank G-d blessings from above.

The Soulprinting sessions last two hours in person. I do an hour of preparation based on information you provide beforehand. In contrast to the process oriented coaching sessions, Soulprinting is more about identifying your unique make-up based on the month and date of your birth, your soul powers and the like. It's ancient wisdom applied to your personal identity. With this knowledge, you are able to live a more focused, joyous life because knowing where you're coming from makes getting "there" a whole lot easier.

My regular fee for coaching is $110/hour and for a Soulprinting $300. For participants of the Brookville or Spirit Training courses, I am offering coaching for $90/hour and Soulprinting for $250. If you are interested in setting up a session for either one with me, click here.

p.p.s. Looking forward to seeing you Tuesday after Pesach. In the meantime, all the best.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Seven Habits of Transformation

Sefirat Haomer, Introduction

By Shimona Tzukernik

You shall count seven full weeks for yourselves from the day following the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer as a wave-offering. Count fifty days until the day following the seventh week.
Leviticus 23:15-16

I know a guy who's an alcoholic in recovery. He once told me a piece of his story that's stuck with me nine years down the line.

He said, "I initially struggled with the fact that as a nation we left Egypt to receive the Torah. Passover is about being freed from servitude. But seven weeks later – we received the Torah. We had just ran away from a life of rules and restrictions and now we were welcoming rules and restrictions! It was like out of the frying pan and into the fire!

But then I got it.

I remembered my first AA meeting. I'd reached bottom. I mean bottom! With nowhere to go and my life in ruins, I made it to a meeting.

It was out of the frying pan and into the fireThe first step states that we're powerless over alcohol. I didn't want to admit it but I already knew it. That's why I was there. But that truth felt like death. What was I going to do with the knowledge? Then the topic turned to the step the meeting was dealing with, number two. It states that a Higher Power can restore us to sanity. In that moment I knew there was hope, however distant. For me, it was Gd or the bottle. Either booze would run my life or I could turn it over to a Being who was greater than me and who could bring true healing into my life, if I could open myself to that Presence.

And that's how I related to the connection between Passover and Shavuot – the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah. I'd known for some time already about being a slave to the bottle. And I knew that the concept of slavery applied to all our vices and desires.

I can be a slave to the world. Or – I can allow my Creator into my life. At an even deeper level, I realized that my truest self is aligned with Gd's blueprint for creation. So when I give myself over to the Divine will, I'm giving fullest expression to my deepest self. That's freedom – even if it entails denying my body or ego the instant gratification it desires. That's why we leave Egypt – servitude to others – and less than two months later give ourselves over to Gd."

That's his story. The way he tied the two holidays together was visceral and visual. It gets to the core of what the interim days between the two holidays are. Passover and Shavuot are respectively the point of departure and destination of a journey. The forty-nine days in-between are the path we follow to reach the goal. The journey is comprised of seven full weeks which the Giving of the Torah comes to crown on the fiftieth. Each week offers us an opportunity to work on a different aspect of our being as we cleanse and ready ourselves for Divine Revelation. Together they comprise the mitzvah of counting the Omer.

So I thought that for the next couple of weeks we'd go on the journey together, exploring the call of the hour.

But first, we need to get a hold on the manner of service in general.

The Biblical verse that delineates the commandment reads as follows:

"You shall count seven full weeks for yourselves from the day following the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer as a wave-offering. Count fifty days until the day following the seventh week."1
If we unstitch it, the first of these two verses is puzzling.

First off, why do we need to be told to "count for (ourselves)? Is there another way to count? This phraseology is not a one-off deal. We find the term "for yourselves" mentioned in relation to other commandments. There however it seems to make sense. For example, when the Torah tells us to take and shake the four species on the holiday of Sukkot, it says "Take (the four species) for yourselves." The implication here is that you actually have to own the fruits and plants you're holding. Or if you don't own them, at least be given them as a gift.2 The meaning of "for yourselves" then is "from that which is yours."

There's another example. Sukkot lasts for seven days. The eighth day is a holiday unto itself. Gd tells us, "The eighth day must be a gathering for you." Here the explanation is that the seven days of Sukkot are dedicated to all mankind. We offer up seventy sacrifices over the course of the holiday in correspondence with the seventy collective nations. Then comes Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day Gathering. This was a time for the Jewish people to engage in a more intimate experience with the Creator in celebration not of the universal but the personal. So here the meaning of "you" is "just for you."

So what does "for yourselves" imply with regard to the counting? Actually, there's yet another verse which gives some insight. On the obligation to count the Jubilee cycle of fifty years, the Torah instructs, "Count seven sabbatical years for yourself." Noting the difference between the singular and plural pronouns with regard to counting the years of the Jubilee and the weeks of Sefirat HaOmer respectively, the Talmud3 makes the following distinction: The Jubilee years can be counted by one individual on behalf of all the people. But the weeks of the Omer must be counted by each one alone.

This then is the legal implication. Each of us has to stand in prayer each night for forty nine consecutive nights and articulate where we're at in the journey.

However, all levels of Torah are part of one totality. That means that the legal and mystical must mesh. What is it about the counting of the Omer that we have to each do it alone?

A second thread in the reading is the wave offering. It was a sacrifice of roasted and ground barley that had to be lifted up and physically waved back and forth by the priest. Why was the lifting and waving necessary?

The next, and glaring, question is why we're told to count from the day following Shabbat. The reference here is to Passover. It was from the night after the exodus that we began counting in anticipation of the Revelation at Sinai. We walked out from Egypt on a Thursday at noon. Obviously then, the first ever counting of the Omer happened on a Thursday night. Why then does the Torah use the word "Shabbat" rather than say, "Count from the night after Passover?"

And finally, what's the import of "seven full weeks?" Either you count for six weeks and say one, two, six, however many days – or if its six weeks and seven days, then you're counting for seven weeks. How on earth could you have seven incomplete weeks?!

The answers lie in an understanding of the spiritual landscape of who we are. Each of us has a higher and lower self. We could even define that as a false and true self. The former is animalistic in the sense that it behaves according to instinct. Our animal lives are lived reactively. At this level we certainly have the components of mind and heart but the animal mind is very limited. The animal within is primarily emotive and what intellect it has merely serves to fulfill our passions and justify our irrational egoistic beliefs.

The human self, by contrast, is primarily intellective. Emotions at this level are generated by thought. Holy thought is a kind of chiropractic adjustment for the soul: think right, feel right, do right follow each other in a domino effect. Here the heart serves the mind. It serves as a means of expression for our true identity.

With this in mind, we can now address the questions raised by the verse:

The deep purpose of counting the Omer is to shine the soul in preparation for the Revelation at Sinai. The Hebrew word for "count" reads usfartem. In Hebrew, the letters "f" and "p" are interchangeable. So safir, "count", can be re-vocalized as sapir, which is related to the word "sapphire." Gd is telling us, "Make yourselves luminous. Become clear and glowing like a sapphire stone."

In actual terms what that means is that we have to take our animal soul and refine it. We have to deal, week by week, with base emotions and impulses, elevating and transforming them for a Higher purpose.

This end-goal is alluded to by the elevation of the barley offering. Whereas wheat is a food traditionally associated with human consumption, barley is a grain primarily associated with animals. The offering required that young ears of barley, still moist, be dried by fire and then ground, and sifted thirteen times before being lifted to Gd as an offering.

Taking the barley as a visual metaphor for our animal souls, we're being asked to take the juice of our desires and burn that into steam that drives our connection with the Divine. We burn it through fire, through the challenging discipline of restraint and respect for boundaries. Then we grind it. In other words, we sublimate the ego. Still not done, next comes the service of repeatedly sifting through our being, eliminating impurities. And finally, we elevate our inner animal.

The goal of Judaism is not to reject any dimension of self. Whatever we've been given is meant to be used in the service of Gd. Our most physical and base existence must proclaim that in truth there is no barrier between the highest and lowest realm of creation.

In order to do that, we have to inspire ourselves and allow our Gdly essence to shine forth. It's always there but being enclothed within the body and dunked in a physical realm, this inner point fades. We lose access to it as we go about our lives. Sefirat HaOmer is a full seven weeks devoted to recalling to consciousness this innermost point.

This is the meaning of the word lachem, "for yourselves." Our lachem, our true self, is this essential Gdly soul. We're given the mission of making it glow with awareness and clarity so as to be able to tackle the grand task of elevating the animalistic self we live with on a day to day basis.

It's a lofty, lovely sounding goal. But how are we to do it?

The answer is Shabbat. In Hebrew the word Shabbat is etymologically related to the word lishbot which means "to rest." Gd's message is, "If you want to have a shot at elevating your baser nature, you'll have to rest a little from worldly conduct." In other words, if you're enmeshed with public opinion, making money, gratifying your desires and so on and so on, then you'll have a tough time of rising above it all. The way to transcend those limitations is to abstain, to take a rest from the obsessions and pursuits that distract us from the real purpose of our being here.

Then we're guaranteed: If you do this, you'll be whole. You'll have "seven full weeks" under your belt and be able to live life as it was intended. You won't have to discard any aspect of your being. The animal will still be there but having empowered your true self, you'll be able to inspire and refine the more base aspects of who you are. You'll be a fitting vessel to receive Divine revelation and you'll discover that finally, you're truly free.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be exploring how that's done step by step. Until then, light and joy to you and yours.

1. Leviticus 23:15-16
2.The gift is given on condition that it will be returned to the original owner. But nonetheless at the moment the recipient holds it and says the blessing, she or he owns it.
3. Menachot 65:2

This article was originally posted on

Three Steps to Freedom

Wth a Belt, Shoes and a Stick

I'll cut to the chase. When you want to leave Egypt, there's no time to lose. For according to the mystics, Egypt is the archetype of limitation.[1] Each of us is bound by both internal and cosmic constraints. We come into the world with a soul profile that pretty much defines our spiritual, intellectual and emotional inclinations. It predisposes us to be a person of expansiveness or constraint, a doer or a thinker and the like. Then there's the head space generated by our place of birth, our cultural assumptions and bias. The nuclear family further imprints our way of being in the world. And of course, there's our personal biochemistry. All these factors subtly determine the choices we make on a daily basis - the way we interact with others, the line of work we are drawn to, our defense mechanisms and beliefs about the world. Mostly, we're unconscious of this underlying structure and so we live a reactive life rather than proactively creating the world we live in. "Getting out of Egypt" means I become consciously aware and free myself of these limitations, living the infinite life I'm capable of.

The seder is a template for getting out. That means we must continuously re-enact it not only in each generation, but each day we have the blessing to be here on planet earth. So let's take a look at one verse that relates how we were instructed by the Infinite Creator to partake of the seder. It plots a three-step program for true freedom.

The Torah relates, "You must eat the Pascal Sacrifice with your hips girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand."[2] Some people, particularly sefardim, actually conduct the seder "belted." But even for those who don't do it physically, there's a spiritual correlation to leaving Egypt. Let's take a look at what those are.

Step One: Belt your Hips

Our hips form the sacrum. They're the fulcrum from which movement occurs, and the basis of support for the entire body. Hips have the power and strength to support and sustain the highest aspect of the body, our head, as well as our arms, with which we engage with the world and manifest our desire.

This physical reality serves as a metaphor apropos the soul. At the spiritual level, the hips symbolize pure belief in G-d. For it is faith that upholds and sustains the "head," or intellect. Faith thus supports the highest use of mind, namely to contemplate and meditate deeply on the greatness of G-d and His infinite Identity. But it doesn't stop there because the end goal of all that meditation is to make a real change, a transformation that manifests in daily life. We contemplate in order to give birth to love and fear of G-d, thereby in turn generating behavioral shifts. To extend our metaphor, love and fear are the arms and body of the soul.[3] This is what our sages meant when they said, "(The prophet) Habbakuk came and set (all the commandments) up on one, as it says, 'The rightous person lives by his faith.'" For faith is the foundation of everything. The sacrum forms the hips of the soul.

Hips alone though are not enough to support the body. We need our muscular belt to be intact. Just look at the popularity of pilates and you begin to get a sense of how powerful strengthening the core muscles is. What does it mean to strengthen our metaphysical belt? How do we fortify faith and enable our sacrum to support and sustain the head and hands? Through the study of the Oral Torah, specifically the laws that govern life.[4]

It seems counter-intuitive. How does something as "down-to-earth" as action, so seemingly devoid of spiritual energy, strengthen our loftiest ability, the capacity to believe in G-d? Firstly, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that action is divorced from spirit. The commandments are not rituals. They are physical acts that capture G-d's essence. They are the quantum leap between me and my Creator. For if I travel even a million miles towards infinity, I've gotten no closer. To transcend creation and bond with G-d, to defy the limits of my earthly existence, I need to engage with the deeds that G-d Himself has mandated. It's in those mundane acts that He invests His innermost being.

At another level, the sages are not even addressing the performance of the commandments. They're talking simply of learning about them. I've seen it countless times - in others and myself. Opening up a code of Jewish law connects us with the mystical revelation associated with the giving of the Torah. The letters on the page were written by legal authorities using precedent and laws that can be traced back to that very moment of Divine revelation. And even if we don't think of that fact consciously in the moment, the black fire of the letters on the white fire of the page burn into our being and awaken our faith. In so doing, our consciousness and ability to love and respect are empowered.

That's why G-d instructed us to leave Egypt belted. At the time of the exodus we were bereft of soul wealth. We lived in a world of spiritual scarcity. We had no merit. That's what the prophet Ezekiel means when he said, "You were naked and bare."[5] The only thing we had going for us was our faith. Somehow, despite the fact that all evidence pointed to our collapsing into physical and mental subordination to the forces of the natural world, we managed to envision a new reality. We were capable of such vision and the ability to act illogically in the face of obstacles because we had faith.[6] We believed that no matter how bad things were, G-d could redeem us and we were intrinsically worthy of that. In this light, G-d said, "If getting out of hell is dependent on your faith, you'd better get strengthen the ability. Gird your loins. Engage in study."

If you really want to leave Egypt today - and you're obligated to - "gird your loins." Or as the dictionary suggests, "summon up your inner resources in preparation for action." Pick up a book that describes life for a Jew. What's the day supposed to look like from waking in the morning to hitting the pillow at night. Try the stories of the Talmud, or even the logical reasoning of the sages that forms the backbone of all legal rulings. It'll boost your faith, enliven your heart, and give you a lift out of limitation.

Step Two: Put your Shoes on your Feet

The next phase of attaining freedom has to do with with how the different aspects of ourselves interact. We need to establish a working relationship between our higher and lower self. And the process is analogous to wearing shoes!

From health shoes to stilettos, shoes have two things in common: they're a garment for the foot and they're generally made of leather. It doesn't "just happen." Crafting a pair of shoes takes work and effort - and the use of sharp chemicals. But when all's done, you have an item of clothing. Think about it for a moment. One takes the rough hide of an animal and works and reworks it until something utilitarian, and often beautiful, is made to protect and enhance the wearer. An animals skin adorns a person.

What's all this got to do with being liberated you ask? Even more so, why the emphasis that we actually wear the shoes? Is having them in the closet not enough? In Jewish law actually, once the garment is on the body, it's nullified to it. If the body becomes impure, the shoe does too because no matter how striking a dress, a blouse, a shoe - each exists to serve the body. Clothing thus loses its independent identity once worn.

What does all this mean apropos leaving Egypt? The answer lies in understanding the metaphysical correlation to shoes.

Each of us is multifaceted. We have a base self. This animal soul suffers from the delusion of existing outside of G-d, it's selfish and driven by the desire for gratification. Then there's the G-dly soul, our higher being. This true self yearns for oneness with the Infinite G-d, is selfless and free of compulsion for worldly things. One might think that rejecting the lower self is the way of the scholars and mystics. But this is not the case. The very purpose of the higher soul is to refine the animal so as to make it a vessel for truth and G-dliness. Our sages comment on the verse, "Love G-d with all your heart."[7] In Hebrew, the word for heart is written in the plural form. So the literal meaning is, "Love G-d with all your hearts." The reason for this, they say, is that G-d is telling us to love him with both our inclinations.[8] With our menial and lofty selves.

In other words, we're looking to work the animal within in such a way that it becomes a garment for who we truly are. The goal is to capture its imagination and direct its latent passions in the direction of the Divine. We're not going to turn it into a G-dly soul. And that's not the goal. But we do want at the very least to awaken the natural, or instinctive, love within. When done, you've crafted a spiritual shoe because the hide of the animal is now serving the G-dly soul.

In a sense, each of us must become a spiritual tanner. And just as with the crafting of a pair of shoes you have to use a sharp chemical, so too in the service of G-d. Progress requires celebrating where you're gifted. But that alone is insufficient. At times we draw closer to our goal through a kind of holy harshness. As our sages teach us, "A person should always agitate the good inclination over the evil one.[9] Even though we'd rather it were different, the truth is there is a time for honest self assessment, bitter as the process may be.

However - and it's a big but - the essence of serving G-d must be with joy and not agitation. Prior to our actual service, we need the "sourness." When you're first standing up to serve G-d, let's say to pray, you need to prepare yourself for the conversation. You haven't yet softened the animal skin. You're in a state of consciousness comparative to the Jews prior to leaving Egypt sitting at the seder table and wearing shoes. You have yet to escape and so a measure of critical assessment and honest appraisal is in order. The "but" is that the shoes be on the feet. Once on, they're nullified to the wearer. That boils down to, "Take a moment for bitterness. Be a spiritual tanner and soften your leather with something caustic. But never forget that the process of wearing down your coarseness, and any sadness that entails, is subordinate to the service of joy. The bitter phase must be nullified to the essential aspect of serving G-d with joy.

Step Three: Hold onto your Staff:

This last step entails dialogging with ourselves and engaging the mind in meditation.

The staff, or rod, is associated with a dog, as the Talmud says, "One trains a dog with a stick."[10]  In order to understand this, we must first address the difference between a dog and other animals. There are kosher animals that can be offered to G-d on the alter. In other words, even thought it's an animal, we can elevate it to sanctity. Then there are non-kosher animals. They can't be brought as offerings but if you sell them, the revenue can be used to buy a kosher animal that may be used as an offering. With a dog however, even the money earned from selling one is forbidden for purchase of an animal go be offered on the altar. This is because there's a willfulness and excitement in a dog that just cannot be tamed. Unless its guided with a stick.

The same applies with regard to the animal soul. As mentioned, the animal soul is primarily emotive. It has no connection to intellect. Think of it as "an old and foolish king."[11] And yet, this soul still has dimensions you can talk to. With effort and time, you can capture it with explanations. Having caught its attention and opened it to a new reality, you can elevate it to G-d. Its your personal inner kosher animal.

But there is another aspect of your animal which is like a dog. In Hebrew "dog" is kelev. This can be re-vocalized as kulo lev, or "all heart." This is the aspect of a person that has lowered itself so profoundly into forbidden pleasures that it loses the aspect of "pure animal." It becomes "chutzpadik as a dog."[12] It no longer has a connection to intellect. And the only way to approach this part of ourselves is to "hit it with a stick."

We're not talking abuse though. The metaphysical strike actually refers to speech. The archetypical model of this is an incident that occurred with Moses whilst he was still in Egypt. He saw an Egyptian beating a Jew to the point of death and prevailed upon him to stop. When he refused, Moses "hit" the Egyptian.[13] Rashi tells us that what this means is that he struck and killed him through enunciating G-d's name.[14]

Applying this to our inner world, striking evil with speech means we must thunder against our ego and delusions. We must challenge ourselves. Merely naming the illness does much to diminish its damage. And then we have to ask it questions, "How long will you conceal the light of G-d from me?"[15] Shake it up with language. That done, we can tell it the truth. The message we give our animal is, "The truth is that the entire world is not a self-sufficient entity. G-d may not be apparent. He's embedded within the atoms of existence but He directs everyting. The whole world is nothing in relation to him. One day this will become manifest and you'll be able to see it with fleshly eyes. 'G-d's glory will be revealed and all flesh will jointly see that the mouth of G-d has spoken.'"

In the language of Kabbalah, "the mouth of G-d has spoken" refers to G-d's most definitive statement, the first commandment. "I am G-d your G-d who took you out of Egypt." The word for the first "G-d" in the verse is Havaye. This name of the Creator alludes to G-d as He transcends time and the limitations of world.[16] Our work is to grasp this infinite beyondness and internalize it. We have to take the level of Havaye and make it "(our) G-d" - "(our) strength and vitality."[17] This consciousness, that we are not bound in any way by the limitations of the world, becomes our strength and vitality. It transforms our reality and effects a personal exodus from Egypt.

So we pick up the stick of language and thought patterns and thunder against our animal. We cry out, "Until when will you conceal the truth from me, and get me to buy in to the limitations and boundaries of worldly conduct?" Just as Moses did to the Egyptian, we disempower our animal soul with the name of G-d, the name Havaye. We train it with words and meditate on the G-dliness that transcends the world. And thereby generate a Divine light that rectifies our animal self.

You can find release today. Put on your belt: learn the laws that govern daily life, thereby fortifying faith. Lace up your shoes: Engage in refining the animal soul with acerbic introspection but always ensure that any bitterness is subordinate to the cardinal principle of being happy as we strive for truth. And pick up a stick: Talk to your lower self and reframe its way of looking at the world by meditating on the fact that although you're born into a world of limitation, you exist beyond the dimensions of the world.

Happy travels!

1. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. The word for limitations is meitzarim.
2. Exodus, parshat Bo 12,11
3. Tanya, Igeres Hakodesh Siman 1
4. This is the meaning of "She girds her hips with strength" Proverbs 31,17
5. Ezekiel 16,7
6. As we read in Mechilta on Parshat Beshalach 12,31, "Our forefathers were redeemed in the merit of their faith."
7. Deuteronomy, Parshat Vaetchanan 6,5
8. Shmos Rabba 9,2
9. Brachot 5,271
10. Shmos Rabba 9.2
11. Ecclesiastes 4,13
12. See Yishayahu 56,11, "The dogs are greedy, they do not know satiation.
13. Exodus 2,12
14. Rashi on Exodus 2,14
15. Tanya chapter 29
16. Havaye is etymologically connected to haya (was), hoveh (is) and yi'heye (will be)
17. Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar 16
Originally posted on

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Your “Iffy” and “Sticky” Self: How to Balance Narcissism and Healthy Self-Esteem

Some weeks ago, Brad Wellen commented on the cover of a recent New Yorker. “(It) depicts NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg staring at himself in the mirror while he munches on Valentine’s Day chocolates as hearts dance around his head. Not exactly the most humble depiction of Mayor Mike, but surprisingly Bloomberg is not at all upset with the narcisstic tone of the caricature. After joining President Obama, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, and the Pope as cover subjects for the New Yorker, Bloomberg was flattered at the thought of the “Bloom in Love” illustration.

‘If I am in that company, boy, I guess I should have a very big smile on my face. I like what I see in the mirror, and I hope everybody here does. I get up in the morning, and I work as hard as I can, and my kids have turned out great. I’m a lucky enough guy to have made a lot of money, and I’m giving it all away and making a big difference.’”

After reading the article, a friend contacted me with this question: How do you balance healthy self-worth with excessive self-absorbed narcissistic behavior?

In third grade I learned a limerick that stuck. “There was a young man from Ideal, who said, ‘Although pain is not real, when the prick of a pin goes into my skin, I dislike what I fancy I feel!’” I think it I remembered it because it so aptly and subtly captures some of the complexities of self and perception.

Like it or not we can subscribe to any philosophy or ideals, we can say our identity is an illusion but when push comes to shove our ego makes itself felt. We’re locked in to a duality. We vacillate between feelings of nothingness on one hand and narcissism on the other – all the while looking for the balance we call “healthy self-esteem” that’s supposed to be somewhere in between.

The duality and struggle is right there in the first two Commandments. At the deepest level, number one informs us not only that G-d exists but that He’s One and indivisible – the only true existence. That doesn’t leave much room for us does it? On the other hand, the second Commandment says, “Don’t worship idols.” The “self” is the ultimate idol. So right there at number two we’re told not to be seduced by our egos. Ironically, by implication that means we are here, we do exist, the ego is way more than a “young man from Ideal.” All of which puts us between a rock and a hard place. How do we navigate those two truths?

According to Judaism the universe is a not a delusion. Not at all. We are here. But we’re here in an iffy kind of way. At any moment, G-d could stop creating us and we’d simply cease to be. Our deepest desire is to be a real, absolute, independent being. We yearn to really exist. And our deepest fear is that we don’t. On the one hand, we’re certainly here. But on the other, our existence could disappear in a flash because our very being is an outgrowth of the will of G-d. The “iffiness” of who we are has us all crazy. Deep down we know the truth and we’re terrified.

My husband is from Russia. He tells me that word on the street was that Brezhnev had surgery to enlarge his chest because he had run out of place for all his medals. Laughable yes, but before you laugh out loud, remember that in a different way we’ve got our own scam going on. Our achievements, profiles and possessions all provide a buffer to our deep existential fear. They give us the false sense that we’re “really here” independently of G-d. The trophies on the shelf, the awards on the wall, the diamonds in the drawer, even the fact that we’re “good guys” (whatever it is we personally use to build self-esteem) are our Brezhnev-badges, our personal way of soothing the terror that we don’t really exist.

So I wouldn’t put “healthy self-worth” on one side of the scale and “excessive self-absorbed narcissistic behavior” on the other. They’re both just points along the spectrum of the ego doing its thing. They both grow out of our need to be a real something. They’re different responses to the existential crisis of iffiness.

What we call self-esteem can be compared to a papier-mâché balloon. It looks substantial but can’t stand up to being banged about. Let’s say you feel good about yourself because you like what you see in the mirror – and for good reason. A la Blumberg you’ve worked hard and made a meaningful contribution. You’re charitable, attentive, committed to social justice. The kids turned out great. Okay. But what if you don’t like what you see in the mirror? Or you’ve had to work a menial nine-to-five job you hated day in and day out for thirty years. What if you’re stingy? And the kids are in trouble!? Does that mean you’re a nothing? Without the diamonds are you then just dust? Or even with them, are you then the “true existence” you aspire to be?!

To develop a truly healthy sense of self, you have to find out who you are without any of it. You have to access the indestructible part of you that has essential value. By that I mean the place in you that is absolutely valuable for no reason other than that you’re created in the image of G-d. Its value has nothing to do with diamonds or even how the kids turned out. It’s a non-utilitarian value that comes by virtue of the fact that you simply exist.

Between you and the utopian bliss you feel when you touch your infinite, absolute value stands a fragile – yet very powerful – ego. To live a fearless and life you have to surrender the ego. However just like when jumping into the swimming pool there’s a moment where you’re neither on the ground nor in the water, so too in surrendering the ego there’s a moment of nothingness. You let go of the ego, the narcissism, even the good guy you’ve always held in healthy esteem – and you have zilch. It feels like death. But that’s the truth. There’s no other way in. You have to die in order to live.

Sure you have an iffy self but you also have a “sticky” one. You sticky self is your essential value which is going nowhere regardless of what’s going on outside of you or within. Find the sticky self. It’s beyond what others – or even you – think of you! From there you’re home free.

For a limited time I'm offering a 10 minute FREE consultation. To take me up on the offer, click here. I'll get back to you.