BY HARV BISHOP
I always intellectually believed that God was everywhere present. Whenever someone would remind me of that my wise-ass response was that the Creator had obviously forgotten some parts of New Jersey.
But if I had been honest with myself I would have added myself along with New Jersey. I saw myself as such a flawed screw-up that it was hard to believe that Divinity was really and truly within me.
The intellectual piece was in my DNA. Though we were nominally Catholic, I was raised with my mother reading favorite passages from Joel Goldsmith and Ralph Waldo Trine. As a teenager, I started attending what would become the largest New Thought church in the world.
I was recently reminded of my love for the idea of Oneness and my nagging self-doubt. I came across my yellow legal pad of notes from my classes in Kabbalah—mystical Judaism—with Rabbi Howard (Henoch Dov) Hoffman. You see, as an ex-Catholic boy who intellectually loved New Thought’s teaching of Oneness, it took 23 years of study with my rabbi to understand my inner spark of Divinity at a gut level.
It is customary to offer a Dvar Torah (personal teaching) to honor a celebration of major landmarks in your teacher’s life. This article is my Dvar Torah for my rebbee’s 70th birthday.
My legal pad notes read, “Only when you are resting in your Divine nature can you find true humility.”
I chewed on this sentence for a few weeks. It was written long enough ago that I no longer had the context for it. “Isn’t excessive humility the source of low self-esteem?” I asked myself. The key to unlock my cryptic note came while visiting with my friend, Dan, also a student of the Rabbi.
In explaining the meaning of my note, Dan quoted Rabbi Kolonimus Shapiro, saying, “The place for self-doubt is for looking at our animal nature.”
Rabbi Kolonimus Shapiro, a spiritual light to my rabbi, is someone to pay attention to. Rabbi Shapiro never lost his faith even in the hell of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi assault. He taught secret classes in the sewers of the ghetto. Though he did not survive the Holocaust, his work did and it continues to inspire new generations while the Thousand Year Reich was gone two years after Rabbi Shapiro’s death.
Dan’s words hit me like a brick. What is meant by our “animal self?” All those primitive impulses programmed into us by evolution including the tendency to go through life on autopilot driven by habit rather than choice. The tendency to judge by surface appearances and divide the world into good for me, bad for me. In short, all our narrow and reactive perspectives focused on what divides us from others rather than seeing our commonalities. I spent much of my life horrified at my “animal” self with its flaws, habits, shortcomings, and sometimes short temper. I wrongly used my shortcomings to doubt my divinity and in so doing had it exactly backwards.
“Only when you are resting in your Divine nature can you find true humility.” Dan’s interpretation flipped the equation for me. Rest in your Divine nature and you will find your infinite value, say the rabbis. Knowing your infinite value enables you to find the humility to compassionately, and honestly, face your “animal nature” and not lose hope. When you can do that you can own your mistakes mindfully and make constructive life changes.
When your self-image is invested in seeing yourself as all good or all bad you lose out on mindful self-reflection and integrating all the parts of your personality.
Rabbi Hoffman teaches that the only true miracle is a change in perception. In a complex, dualistic world, good and bad events and qualities in ourselves are inevitable. As he says, at the human level “we are all a mixed bag, some good traits, some bad traits.”
One of the first teachings he gave me was a rabbinic Koan (or, as he jokingly calls such challenging questions, “a Cohen”). “When eating fish,” said the rabbi, “do you take the fish from the bones or the bones from the fish?”
I was initially stumped. There is no physical difference between taking the bone from the fish or the fish from the bones. It is the same act.
As I later learned, the meat of the fish is seen as the good in ourselves and in life and the bones are symbolic of the negative in ourselves and in life. Yes, it is the same act, but what do we choose to focus on? It is only our perception that makes the difference.
And there is a deeper level to this teaching. The negative in ourselves is not really “negative.” The rabbi teaches what he calls “the Torah of mistakes.” Our flaws and mistakes are the gateway to awakening, he says. We are unlikely to reach out to God because of our strengths. Our strengths typically do not inspire self-reflection, doubt, or questions. Our strengths come easily and we can take those traits for granted. Our weaknesses are where we are open to the Divine, learning and growth. Our weaknesses drive us to clarify our co-creative partnership with Divinity and bring our healing gifts into the world.
When I first studied with the rabbi he told me, “Just think. You have deficits that no one else in the world does. That’s something to celebrate.”
I didn’t take that as good news. I couldn’t celebrate it then. I wanted spirituality to help me avoid the “negative” side of myself, yet no matter how much enlightened teaching I absorbed I couldn’t escape myself. I was reminded of the Beat writer Jack Kerouac who meditated in the mountains seeking enlightenment and came back disillusioned. He remained, he said in so many words, the same old terrible person he had always been.
But now I can celebrate and use self-doubt where it is useful. As the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, the most important question we can ever ask ourselves is “Are you sure?”
Yom Hu’ledet Sameach, Rabbi.
See Rabbi Hoffman speak at the Snowmass Dialogues on InterSpiritality.
For more information on the photographs of Barry Meriash visit his website.