This morning I was listening to a guided meditation with Sharon Salzberg. It began with an invitation: "See if you can feel just one breath from the beginning, to the middle, to the end." And with that my mind was gone, off thinking about the book of Genesis, and what it has been to read it weekly as a community from the beginning, to the middle, and now nearing the end. To follow the generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. To nestle ourselves inside their ancient stories, to encounter ourselves in them.
And then I heard, "It's just one breath."
In an instant, I woke up and returned to the simple awareness of my breath, noting the rising and falling of my abdomen, being with the sensations of breathing, tingling at the nostrils, constriction in the sternum.
The meditation continued, "If something arises, sensations, emotions, memories, plans, that is strong enough to take your sensation away from the breath, if you've fallen asleep or gotten carried away in some incredible fantasy, the moment you realize you've been distracted, is the magic moment, because that's the moment we have the chance to be really different, not judge ourselves, but simply let go and begin again."
This is where we find ourselves this week, nearing the end of the book of Genesis, at the beginning of parshat Vayigash.
וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה
"And Judah drew near (vayigash) to him" (Gen. 44:18).
While the text is sufficiently ambiguous, the most simple understanding is that Judah drew near to Joseph, not knowing it was Joseph, and tells his story, in what rabbis for thousands of years can only come to understand as a kind of prayerful plea for compassion. And it is precisely this intimate exchange that compels Joseph to come out to his brothers. They fall on each other weeping, hugging and kissing.
And it all began with the simple, profound, seemingly impossible posture of vayigash - understood as a word of approach. Judah drew near to Joseph. It is a posture of courage and presence. He didn't just speak to him. He brought himself to him.
The meditation continued: "If you have to let go and begin again thousands of times, it's fine, that's the practice. It's just one breath."
Over and over again, our tradition reminds us that our practice is to gently let go and simply return. And with each breath that I returned to, I quietly noted in my mind "vayigash" - each breath became an encounter, a drawing near to my own experience.
The meditation concluded: "Remember that in letting go of distraction the important word is gentle. We can gently let go. We can forgive ourselves for having wandered. With great kindness to ourselves, we can begin again." As Judah and Joseph do.
This shabbat, may we have the wisdom to be gentle with ourselves, from the beginning, to the middle, to the end. To see this day, and each breath within it, as an opportunity to let go and begin again. May we together draw on the gentle spirit of Shabbat, as we draw near to our breath, to community, and to the mystery.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.