Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Gatekeepers of our Soul

Sorting & checking grapes before they were turned into wonderful juice
The month of Elul is upon us. It calls us to soul-search and refine our life-routines, purifying the gates of our soul.

Ever since picking up the Netivat Shalom,[1] I have become addicted to his lucid parasha explanations, with their gentle Chassidic mussar (ethics) applicable for present-day life-transformations. So here again I present you with a Parasha Meditation based on the Netivat Shalom’s commentary of the gatekeepers of the soul that we are prompted to appoint.

The job of these gatekeepers is to guard the gates of our senses and ensure that we only hear what we are meant to hear, and notice the things we need to see for the sake of feeling thankful for our blessings while still being able to fix what needs correction. The gate of our mouth especially needs careful guarding both what enters it and the words that come out of our mouth. We can fashion certain criteria and questions for our gatekeepers to ask before they allow any sensation to pass the gates of our openings: the eyes, ears, nostrils and mouths. Before any words get past our lips, we can train the first gatekeeper to ask: “Is this kind?” That stops a lot of traffic immediately. Even if the words get past the first gatekeeper, we still need additional filtering questions. Let our second gatekeeper ask: “Is it necessary?” And for those words that qualify here too, the last gatekeeper asks: “Is it Hashem’s will?

I recommend doing chesbon hanefesh (soul-accounting) especially during the month of Elul. We can record the decisions of the judges of our gates and write down strategies for our spiritual “law enforcers” to carry out these decisions.

This week’s meditation is a walking meditation which can be practiced any time you walk from one place to another. It helps us get in touch with the sensations our senses meet throughout our environment and charge our gatekeepers to sift and monitor which sensations will pass the gates of our soul.

Shanah Tovah U’Metukah!

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life!
Chana Bracha Siegelbaum

Read Rebbetzin’s commentary to Haftorat Shoftim - "Tapping into Hashem’s Comforting Energy"

Parasha Meditation Shoftim 
Devarim 16:18-21:9 
Making Fences and Appointing Personal Judges of Spiritual Protection
“You shall appoint judges and police officers for yourself in all your gates that Hashem your G-d gives you…”[2] Although according to the simple meaning (peshat) the verse is directed at the community of Israel to appoint a righteous judicial structure, however, this verse is written in singular as if speaking to each of us personally. Netivat Shalom explains that each individual has his or her personal gates. We all have the gate of seeing, of hearing, of smelling, of speaking, eating and feeling. We need to make a fence around each of these gates and appoint judges and officers to guard them. The purpose of our guards is to ensure that we use our eyes, ears, nose and mouth only for the sake of Hashem.

Guarding the Gates of our Senses
Before looking at something our appointed “judges” need to determine if it is Hashem’s will or not to look at this particular thing. For example it is a mitzvah to look at a beautiful flower and feel awe for its creator, while it is prohibited to look at a person of the opposite sex that is not our spouse or immediate family in order to derive pleasure. The same goes for listening to the words of Torah and wisdom and closing our ears to gossip and Lashon Hara. Even the nose needs a gatekeeper, to smell the scents of Hashem’s mitzvot like fragrant herbs for Havdala, and refrain from purposely smelling foul odors. For many of us, the gate of the mouth, is the hardest to guard, allowing only the food and amounts that will give us energy to serve Hashem to enter the mouth, and only the words of wisdom and kindness to leave the gate of our mouth. The gatekeeper is our local police man, he knows and patrols our area. He chases off all those petty criminals that want to pick our pockets. We always need to have our gatekeeper's mobile number handy. He will help us say, “No, I am not interested in what you have to offer,” just as we would tell a salesman that knock on our door that we are not interested in purchasing what he is selling.

Training Our Eyes – Nipping Transgression in the Bud
When we appoint judges and officers at each of the seven gates of the apertures in our face, the “judge” weighs the matter carefully and comes to a final decision about what may enter the gates and what needs to be kept away. The “police officers” uphold the judge’s decision and reinforce proper fences and disciplines that will protect us from giving in to our yetzer hara (negative impulse). For example, the role of the “police-officers” is to help us learn “closing our eyes from looking at evil, which is the beginning of sin – the eye sees and causes the heart to desire, and the tool of action completes the matter.”[3] The rectification for the eyes is to train our eyes to look at everything in the world with awe, recognizing Hashem as the Creator of all, as it states: “Lift up your eyes on high, and see: who has created these?”[4]

Letting Our Gatekeepers Enter G-d-Consciousness Within
In addition to preventing negativity from entering, the job of the “judges” and “officers” is to enter G-d-consciousness into all of our gates, and ensure that they will bring you to “Hashem your G-d.” This is the meaning of the continuation of the opening verse of Parashat Shoftim: “…judges and officers …that Hashem your G-d gives you…” – If we rearrange the words slightly, this phrase can also be read to mean: “Judges and officers shall give (enter into you) Hashem your G-d.”[5]

Time for Spiritual Accounting
Now in Chodesh Elul is the time to really work on establishing new life routines conducive to entering Hashem into our lives. I recommend Chesbon HaNefesh (soul-accounting), taking a paper and pen to record the decisions of the “judge” we have appointed, giving written instructions to our gatekeepers. Let us determine which things we need to distance from the gates of our senses, and make a proper plan with appropriate fences to enable the “police-officers” of our personal gates execute the plan!

This Meditation is designed to build up and develop a relationship with your internal gatekeepers.

1. Stand with your spine upright and your shoulders relaxed, letting your arms hang naturally by your sides. Take a couple of long, slow and deep breaths. As you exhale, let go of any unnecessary tension, smile gently, and let your attention flow deep into your belly, your hips, legs and feet. Feel your connection to the earth under your feet.

2. Coordinate your breathing with taking small steps: Step forward with your right foot as you inhale; step forward with your left foot as you exhale; continue in this way. Focus your gaze gently on the ground in front of you. Walk in a relaxed way, slower than your usual walking.

3. As you continue to walk slowly with coordinated breath, become aware of everything on your way that meets your eyes. If you find your eyes resting with a twinge of jealousy on your neighbor’s home, car, garden or anything else belonging to someone else, call on your gatekeeper to help stop these feelings from entering the gates of your eyes.

4. Allow your gatekeeper to avert your gaze. Instead lift your eyes to the sky, look at the silver-laced clouds, and praise Hashem for their creation. Look for other things on your way that you recognize as G-d’s creation. Praise Hashem for being the Creator of the swift bird in the sky, the tall and stately tree, and the beautiful flower…

5. Become aware of the sounds that you hear all around you. Call on your gatekeeper to keep away and close your ears to your neighbor’s angry bad-mannered fight, the noise of the impatient beeping cars, a mother screaming at her kid. Instead open your ears to the song of the birds, the children’s prayer, and the sound of tree-branches blowing in the wind.

6. Notice the smells of your environment. Have your gatekeeper remove the dog’s poop on your path, and the smell of a leaking septic tank. Focus on the scent of the flowers on your way, the grass and the herbs as your brushing footstep release their scent.

7. Make a mental intention to become aware throughout your day of what goes in and out of your mouth. Intensions have a power and energy to attract whatever you put out there. Call on your gatekeeper to ask the following three questions before entering or exiting anything to and from your mouth: “Is this kind? Is it necessary? Is it Hashem’s will?

8. Return to your place with a heightened awareness and confidence in the power of your appointed internal gatekeepers to strengthen your resolve allowing only that which is kind, necessary and for the sake of Hashem to go through the gates of your eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth.

Our personal gates include our character-traits. Just as we need to repent from wrongdoing we need to repent from anger, hatred, jealousy, honor-seeking, lusts etc.[6] Therefore, it states, “May the evil return from his way,”[7] rather than “from his action.” The character traits are the way and the gates of a person.[8] Rav Yisroel Salanter taught that changing one midah is harder that mastering the entire Talmud. May we merit at this time, with the help of our faithful gatekeepers to purify even just an iota of our negative character-traits in order to truly enter Hashem’s presence into the gates of our soul!

[1] By Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, 1911- 2000. The Rebbe of Slonim zt"l and the leader of Slonim chassidut in Israel during the decades following the Holocaust.
[2] Devarim 16:18.
[3] Tur, Orach Chayim, Siman 1 – טור אורח חיים סימן א.
[4] Yesha’yahu 40:26.
[5] Netivat Shalom, Parashat Shoftim, p. 101.
[6] Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 7:3.
[7] Yesha’yahu 55:7.
[8] Netivat Shalom, Parashat Shoftim, p. 101.

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