What you think you understand about the science of God and how it manifests in the realm of the natural sciences as well as human behavior is incomplete until you have the chance to learn from Rabbi Brandon Gaines. He is a skilled negotiator; all that he asks of you is a small commitment: an open mind. A committed spiritual educator, Rabbi Gaines uses his vast martial arts skills and expertise in Chinese medicine and the natural sciences to weave ancient knowledge with the most modern scientific thought, showing the two are One. An old soul, a messenger of knowledge, Rabbi Gaines defies every stereotype, having lived a diverse and multi-faceted life which allows him to engage with any person at any stage on any subject. In an hour’s conversation with him, you’ll find yourself learning about the teachings of the Rambam (Maimonides), understanding Einstein’s theories in a manner you’ve never before entertained, while also discussing ‘Enter the Dragon’ and Maroon Five. His charisma isn’t just refreshing, it’s how he easily engages a wider audience in the things they find alienating, and bring them home. Rabbi Gaines is teaching ancient, often misunderstood ideas which have to compete with a whole host of modern-day distractions vying for our attention.

Fires Within/Fires Without

Daati firestormFires rage, bullets fly, lands quake, and rivers flood. It seems like violence (natural and otherwise) is fast becoming a daily reality, and we are given front row tickets (courtesy of modern media) to behold its fury. Amidst all the chaos one can’t help but wonder, “Why is God allowing this to happen?” If the basis of Theism (the practice of which is Theology) is a God/man relationship, where is our heavenly “partner” in this, our hour of need?


To understand the Divine lesson in “struggle”, we must first begin with the following Talmudic axiom: “Evil does not descend from Heaven.” Clarify the Rabbis, God never causes evil to descend “from heaven,” i.e. from the spiritual worlds above. Meaning, evil (as a mechanism) exists only “below heaven” - in the consciousness of our world. And what is its purpose? Explains Kabbalah, to cause an awakening (“evil” in Hebrew, “Ra”, when inverted - A before the R - forms the word, “Er”, the meaning of which is “awakening!”) Evil, in any manifestation, explain the Rabbis, comes to awaken us to the existence of an uncorrected weakness - a flaw in our lives (our consciousness) that has persisted too long. And how should we respond to the evil that rises before us? “Teshuvah” (“repentance”) answer the Sages. By aligning our behavior (our thoughts, words, and deeds) with the Creator’s will, we create a Godly center - a refined spiritual core.


The masters of Kabbalah teach, when we shift inwardly (evolve to a more Godly plane) reality - the world around us - shifts (changes) outwardly - becomes beautiful. Did you read that carefully? Reality actually changes (for better or worse) because we change! This phenomena is known in philosophy and science as, “Biocentrism”, or, the creation of outer space (physical reality) from inner space (our reality.) This “man creates his world” hypothesis is fundamental to Torah practice (as seen in many places in Talmud and Kabbalah). Perhaps one of the best examples of this Torah Biocentrism is the Messianic prophecy, “The wolf will live with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6). Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimonides (RAMBAM) explains that the wolf and lamb are literal - the wolf (predator) will “live with” (no longer attack) the lamb (prey). Why? Because nature, explains the Rambam, will change upon the Messiah’s arrival, i.e. will become kinder. Other commentators take a very different approach, explaining Isaiah’s “wolf” and “lamb” to be a metaphor for our animal soul and Divine soul. Hence, when the Messiah comes, our “wolf” (animal soul) will “live with” (peacefully coexist with ) our “lamb” (Divine soul).


Question: which perspective is correct? Explains the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Blessed memory), they both are, for the peaceful coexistence of the wolf and lamb without (physical nature) depends on their peaceful coexistence within (spiritual nature). From the above we can see that nature’s harmony depends on man and is thus a Biocentric expression of his/her consciousness! And this, then, is the lesson, we (human beings) are given the keys to determine our fate. If we unite in peace, love, friendship, and respect, (making Godliness our principle preoccupation), nature will become beautiful - align with the spiritual beauty of our inner space. But if, God forbid, our divisiveness continues (chaotic consciousness), nature will continue her violent assault - a Biocentric expression of human turmoil.

May we all commit to being just a little kinder, patient, giving, and more loving as if the fate of the world depends on it!

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Going Down To Rise

Daati Soul huskOne of theology’s greatest quandaries is the reason for the soul’s descent. Specifically, why must the soul descend into physical consciousness (a finite body) if, following death, it returns back to its source - where it began? To clarify the question, if we leave only to return, why descend to begin with? What are we achieving? Let’s examine two famous answers:

Rabbi Ya’akov Abuchatzeira (famed Moroccan Kabbalist) explains in “Pituchei Chotom” (His commentary to the Torah), the soul descends in order to escape “bread of shame”, or, undeserved reward. To clarify, prior to the soul’s descent into the “glowing husk” (the Kabbalistic term for good and evil) of this world, it receives Divine kindness only “passively” - a recipient without merit. This is why the “bread” is termed “shame,” because it is given without merit. To remedy this undesirable condition, God sends the soul into physical consciousness to earn (by choosing good) its place above. In Jewish philosophy, the act of choosing good and rejecting evil (called “clarification”) is termed, “Tikkun”, Hebrew for “fixed”. Most beautifully,  the Hebrew word “Tikkun” (“fixed”) exactly equals (each of the 22 Hebrew letters possesses a special numerical value) “Alma d’ati” (“World to come”, i.e. world of souls where reward is given!) This equivalency teaches that “Alma d’ati” (“world of souls”) is attainable only via “Tikkun” (“Fixing”). To summarize: from the perspective of Rabbi Ya’akov, and those that hold according to his reasoning, the soul descends below in order to earn its place near the Almighty (by choosing good and rejecting evil). Let’s examine yet another answer.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Master Kabbalist and founder of Chabad) explains in “Torah Ohr” (his commentary to the Torah), the soul’s descent below into the world - physical consciousness - is in order to achieve an even greater ascent. Meaning, via the soul’s enduring the tests, trials, and tribulations of this world (the “glowing husk” of good and evil mentioned above), it achieves (assuming goodness was chosen) an even greater “ascent” (experience of God). In fact, so great is this power (explains Rabbi Zalman) that it lifts the soul to an altogether higher level of Divine experience than anything possible before the descent. In the Zohar (first comprehensive work of Kabbalah), this is termed, “Greater is light that shines from darkness (the darkness of this world) than light that shines from light.”

From the above answers we can surmise that our journey here, however tumultuous, is only for our personal greater good. When challenges come your way (and you feel like relenting) remember that via our toil here - in the realms of the “Glowing Husk” - we reveal a power so great that it catapults us to levels of Divine experience that A) remove “bread of shame”, and B) take us to an even higher experience of Him!

May we merit to go from “Strength to Strength” achieving, via our struggle, all the great good our souls are capable of producing.

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The Unity of Self

Man in dessertHuman beings are not simple, but complex things rarely are. From a Torah (Biblical) perspective, human complexity begins with Genesis, that is to say, the two very different descriptions contained in the book of Genesis describing Adam’s (the first of our kind) creation. In short, part one (of the narrative) describes Adam’s creation as lowly, a derivative of dust and earth  - “The Lord formed man from the dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7).

In contrast, part two (of the very same verse) describes his origins as lofty, a derivative of the Divine “breath” - “And God breathed into his (Adam’s) nostrils a living soul.” So which are we, dust or spirit, heaven or earth? Kabbalah explains that we are in fact both, and it is because we are both that complexity/confusion arises. Specifically, it is from our “dust” (physical consciousness ) that worldly appetites, e.g. food and drink, are formed. In contrast, it is from our source in the “Divine breath” (the Godly soul within) that Godly instincts, e.g. charity and prayer, arise.

It is painfully obvious that when these two “sides” of our psyche collide (each demanding the other yield), “complexity” (struggle) arises. Question? Is this duality inevitable or can peace be brokered between the “warring parties”? Are we “hybrids” of heaven and earth condemned to suffer eternally, one moment touching the stars above and the next, falling lifeless to the earth below? Or, is there a better way, a path to harmonize/unite the forces within? To answer the question we turn to a famous Talmudic principle (the last of Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 principles) which states, “When two verses contradict, a 3rd verse comes to resolve the contradiction.” In simple terms, when two verses in the Torah (Bible) contradict (point, seemingly, toward opposite truths), there is always a 3rd verse that comes to resolve the contradiction. In the language of Kabbalah, this “resolving force” is termed “Kav Haemtza” (“The Middle Line”). Kabbalah explains further, that just as a “Middle Line” exists in Torah (resolving apparent scriptural contradictions) so, too, in life-- in our spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical experiences. To say it another way, there is no challenge of body or soul that can’t be resolved, provided we tap (reach) the “Middle Line”. Why? Because the power to “resolve” (“Middle Line” consciousness) derives from a source higher than the initial conflict itself.

If so, what is the “Middle Line” strategy to resolve our physical/spiritual tensions? How do we bring together the dust and stars within? Answers Kabbalah, Torah - the Biblical path (613 Commandments for Israel and 7 Commandments for the nations). Here’s why; Torah is sourced in Godliness (as stated explicitly in the Holy Zohar that “God and Torah are one”), and Godliness is neither spiritual nor physical (“physical” and “spiritual” are creations of Divinity, not Divinity itself). Meaning, when Divinity becomes revealed, both body and soul, “vessel” and “light” in the terminology of Kabbalah, “submit”-- become nullified to their Divine source. Hence, when we tap into Torah consciousness, the “Middle Line” of creation, we infuse our “dust” and “stars” (body and soul) with Divinity itself, transforming completely the once incessant duel into a duet!

So study harder, pray with greater intensity ,and carry out good deeds......your inner duet is fast approaching! 

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Consciousness Matters

Soul footprintsEver hear of a “Carbon Footprint?” Let’s define the term. A “carbon footprint” is, quoting the online dictionary, “The total amount of Carbon Dioxide, and other carbon emissions emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular person, group, etc.” One of mankind’s collective ecological missions has become to avoid leaving a substantial carbon footprint in nature.

Now what about the soul?

Does the soul leave its own “footprints,” impressions if you will, on the world around it? If so, how exactly does our soul’s “imprint” affect others when we are no longer present - when we have already taken leave of a given environment? To commence our discussion, we turn to a famous teaching expounded by Master Kabbalist Rabbi Issac Luria (the Ari’zl) of Safed. There, in his classic work, “Etz Chaim” (“Tree of life”) he discusses how holiness (“Kedusha” in Hebrew) never truly disappears, for when the essence of a “light,” a “Holy thing”, departs, it leaves an everlasting imprint on the place/environment it once stood. Simply stated, our soul’s unique light never really departs (even after death), but remains forever entangled in the world’s consciousness! This teaching of Kabbalah (the “hidden Torah”) is also found twice in the commentary of Rashi (the famous 12th century master of “revealed Torah”). To give just one example, Rashi (to the verse in Genesis, “And Jacob departed from Ba’er Shava”) explains, “When a righteous person departs, it creates an impression.” Both Rashi and the Ari’zl are speaking (albeit in slightly different ways) of “impression” - the imbuing of the soul’s light into worldly consciousness even after its departure.  

Having now substantiated the Torah’s (Bible’s) belief in “impression” - the soul’s eternal effect on the environment it once occupied - we can now turn to question 2: How do these impressions (spiritual “footprints”) affect us? There are two particular examples worthy of citation: 1) Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli; and 2) Rabbi Chayim David Azulai.

Let’s begin with Reb Zusha.
Explains Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli (Master of Kabbalah), “Sometimes we experience a moment of forgetfulness (failure to carry out a specific spiritual responsibility) in a given environment because we are “weakened” by its “consciousness” - the lesser (mundane) consciousness of others. Rabbi Zusha is clearly of the opinion that environments are filled with “impressions” -  influences imparted by the souls of others - that do profoundly impact (for good or for bad) our own conscious experience. Sounds a bit frightening, I know, but there is a major upside.

Famed Kabbalist Rabbi Chayim David Azuli (the “Chida”) explains that it is possible for a lesser diligent or talented student to suddenly experience an epiphany (a deep insight) in spite of his lackluster efforts. How?  If he happens to be studying in an environment frequented by great scholars! Explains the Chida,  this strange phenomena becomes possible only because the great scholar (who was present in the room before the arrival of the less diligent student) already revealed these deep insights (from their concealed depths) and infused them into the “air” of the room - the consciousness of the general environment. Hence, a student of far less skill or aptitude is capable of discovering these wondrous gems as they are already infused in the “air,” (the consciousness) of the room around him!

From the above two examples we clearly see that our soul’s “impressions” do (for good or for bad) directly affect the surrounding material environment, thus impacting the consciousness of others.

Lesson? Thought, speech, and deed must never be underestimated, for even the smallest of acts creates an “impression,” a wave of consciousness (for good or bad) that directly influences and transforms the consciousness of others. Simply put, everything you think, say, and do matters, everything, so use your soul’s powers well; you never know who you are destined to affect. Make the effect a great one!

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Victory Is Just 3 Steps Away

Victory_pottery_wheel.jpgMankind has always sought to repair its “broken vessels” - those places and spaces within our individual and collective psyche that have been tainted by trauma (of one form or another). Truth be told we all share “stock” in this brokenness for we all breathe the air of an imperfect world. And where is this “brokenness” most manifest? Explains Kabbalah, in our personality.

Hence, it is our personality (“middot” in Hebrew) that requires the bulk of our attention, for as Rabbi Israel the Baal Shem Tov explained (in the name of the Saddi Gaon), a person enters this world but for one purpose, to fix bad (broken) character traits. Refinement of character is thus the central focus of the Torah (Bible), and to become truly great “craftsmen” (fixers of broken vessels), we need first discuss the specific methods/techniques involved in attaining spiritual refinement. Explains Kabbalah, the path to refinement/rectification depends upon 3 very specific steps, which, in the terminology of the Baal Shem Tov, are called: Submission, Separation, and Sweetening. Let’s clarify the terminology. What does it mean, “Submission?”

For our purposes, think of submission as, “setting aside,” i.e. discontinuing the use of a thing that can’t perform its prescribed task. In the case of our personality, “submission” is the setting aside of behavior(s) deemed harmful to spiritual growth. This is no easy task, for stopping behaviors to which we are well adapted is easily man’s greatest challenge - just ask any addict striving for his/her sobriety. Challenging as it may be, real change only begins with the willingness to surrender the comfort of habitual behavior in favor of “higher-living,” reaching a better more polished version of self. After successful “surrender” has been obtained, we advance to an even higher form of service (in our pursuit of the true self), “separation.” The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimonides) explains that while the “middle ground” is always preferable in matters of personality, change sometimes involves a little “extremism” - practicing obsessively the opposite form of the bad behavior for a prescribed period of time. For example, if one is well practiced in laziness (and wishes to break its influence), he/she must cultivate an “extreme” form of alacrity (speed) in all behaviors - until the negative trait is overcome. “Separation” thus involves the disciplined practice of removing oneself from old undesirable behaviors (by practicing their opposite traits over and over again) until all traces of their previous existence are removed. Only once we have successfully endured submission and separation (and the old trait(s) no longer predominate) do we merit the 3rd and final stage termed, “sweetening.” Simply defined, sweetening is pleasure, a sublime soulful pleasure that fills us upon the realization of our true potential. Hence, to “taste” sweetening, one must first pass thru the difficulties of stopping old behaviors (submission) as well as permanent detachment from them (separation).

So how do we apply the above ideas?

Choose just one “broken vessel” (defective character trait) you wish to fix and practice for one   week straight “setting it aside” - stopping the behavior when the need/urge arises to engage it. Simultaneously, “obsessively” (temporary extremism) practice the opposing trait, e.g. if you are stopping anger be extremely patient, until you feel the undesirable trait no longer lingers. Lastly, taste your moments of victory (the pleasure of “sweetening”) and ask Hashem (God) to assist your efforts daily, for the Talmud teaches, “Would it not be for Hashem’s help we would not be able to overcome” (the Evil Inclination that rises against us daily).

Blessings and Success!

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I Failed

I failed. I mean, I really, really messed-up. How badly, you ask? So badly, in fact, that the whole blasted thing shattered into tiny pieces, fragments too small to be reassembled —not now, not ever. Why? Because I am a loser, a good for nothing incompetent loser. I am really pathetic, a true nothing. No wonder no one really loves or respects me, I mean, can you blame them?

 

Does that miserable rhetoric sound the least bit familiar? Well, it should, for as embarrassing as it may be to admit, such is the dialogue of that self-deprecating, nagging, destructive voice in your head, whispering any chance it gets (like a chatty unwanted house-guest) that you are not good enough. In truth, it is a skilled conjurer, a master deceiver, the sower of doubt, and the planter of lies. It sometimes bites like a venomous serpent and at other times seduces like a fair-skinned maiden. It knows you so much better than you think and waits ever so patiently for your compliance. Believe me it knows, for it is an “expert in its profession” (Talmud) and very well practiced. No one is immune to its cajolery-- not you, not me, no one. We must neither underestimate it nor allow it an inch in our psyche, for there it will establish its kingdom and take permanent residence, converting all that was once good to its cause. The Talmud (Tractate Sukkah) gives it many titles, but it is known universally by just one: “Yetzer Hara” (Hebrew for “Evil inclination”).

This “Evil inclination,” explain the Sages, begins its journey as a tiny seed, an irritant of the psyche (a negative thought creating disharmony in our perception) and from there it grows, bigger and bigger every day, spreading its branches like menacing tentacles until it consumes everything - all the good we once were. This is what it wants to do but you mustn’t let it. You must fight and mercy is no option for, believe me, it will show you none. True, dealing with this ancient enemy is difficult but we are not alone.

You see, spiritual masters (Godly men and women) have scoured the sacred texts for millenniums and have uncovered many an innovative method to help combat this immortal foe. One such Holy Soul, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (known affectionately as the “Righteous plant,”) spearheaded a movement whose principle slogan was, “Think good and it will be good.” Positive-thinking, he explained, is the only way to begin weakening our common enemy for it feeds, as explained above, off our negative thoughts/self-perception. In Jewish tradition, many miracles have been attributed to positive thinking -- the expectation of a good and fortuitous outcome. But, why? Why is positive-thinking so essential for producing a miraculous outcome?

Positive-thinking, explain the Sages, demonstrates a deep seated faith in the Almighty, a trust that no matter the situation (the hardship I face), everything will work out. Miracles, explain the Sages, happen when we connect ourselves to the “Master of Miracles,” the God who “spoke and the world came into being.” Hence, when we practice banishing negative thoughts (by replacing them with positive ones), we make a space for our true faith to emerge, a faith that once revealed, will bind us instantly to the infinite -- lifting us above all “finite limitations” (worldly constrictions and concealments). When bound to the eternal (via the faith expressed in our positive thinking), anything is possible, and the enemy doesn’t stand a chance. So learn from this the value of positive thinking, for it is the catalyst that makes miracles possible.

Exercise:

Practice replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and remember that everything is possible through positive thinking as it reflects faith in God -- the source of life.

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