Chasing Mystical Vortices
Parshat Beshalach 5780
If you want to have a great family experience with inordinate amounts of fun for children, you might want to head on down to Disneyworld. Each year, fifty two million people, mostly families with small children, visit this Mecca of Fun, making it the most visited attraction in the world. The Orlando area, which boasts not only Disneyworld, the world’s largest theme park, but Universal Studios and Sea World as well, has more smiles per square mile than anywhere else on the globe.
But if you are seeking spirituality, you might want to book a flight to Sedona, AZ instead. Over four million people make the pilgrimage to Sedona each year, seeking spiritual enlightenment and fulfillment. Sedona is home to some of the most beautiful rock formations in the world, massive walls of red rock soaring thousands of feet heavenward, marked by brilliant bands of color and vegetation. But it is not the beauty alone that brings people to Sedona, it is the vortexes.
Vortexes are places of swirling spiritual energy, places where “you can reach the next spiritual level,” just by absorbing the subtle energies emanating from the earth. You can’t see or touch the Sedona vortexes, although some people claim they can be measured using various forms of electromagnetic detection. But most people who come to Sedona don’t need electromagnetic devices, they can simply feel the flow of the vortexes’ energy.
According to those most familiar with spiritual vortexes, there are four primary vortex sites in the Sedona area. One is conveniently located near the airport (or maybe the airport is conveniently located near the vortex…), allowing spiritual travelers to “feel the flow” as soon as they get off their airplanes. The rest of the vortexes are located next to the beautiful rock formations.
I was always a bit skeptical about the whole vortex phenomenon, thinking that vortexes were things best left to people who eat sawgrass with thistle milk, heal headaches with quartz rocks, burn incense, and wear hemp sandals all year round. But it so happens that I visited one of those sites last month, and was able to do some testing myself, and I’m happy to share my results with you.
I was with a group of students and young professionals from all over the country, on a weeklong program called Heritage Retreats. This retreat, which follows a philosophy of LH/PH (learn hard/play hard) splits every day between powerful classes on a wide range of Jewish topics and some great outdoor experiences such as hiking, horseback riding, paintball, etc. The retreat was held in a beautiful ranch about 90 miles north of Phoenix, and on the second day of the program, we all loaded up the vans and headed out to Sedona.
Arriving at the base of Cathederal Rock, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of the place and spent a few minutes trying unsuccessfully to sort out my feelings. At the base of the trail leading up to the heart of Cathedral Rock was a map showing vortextual energy areas, so I should have been pretty well armed to find my vortexes. To aid me further, a pair of hippies pulled up in a beat up pickup truck filled with burning candles. They pulled out some long branches of sage, lit them on fire, and started down the trail waving them back and forth, leaving a voluminous trail of sage-smoke. When we asked them what they were doing, they looked at us as if we had just asked them why they were breathing in and out, “Yeah, um… Dude… Don’t you know it wards off the evil spirits?”
So here I was in the spiritual vortexes capital of the world, with all the evil spirits kept at bay by our good sage-burning friends, but the million dollar question was still the same, would I feel the vortexes?
The path up Cathedral Rock is pretty easy at first, but rapidly gets gnarly. Soon I found myself gasping for breath, climbing up vertical seams in the rock face, and wishing I had better oxygen flow, forget about spiritual flow. After a few stops we reached the top of the trail, and found ourselves in a 20 foot wide slot canyon, two hundred food walls closing us in to the right and the left, and insanely beautiful views of sweeping valleys and towering plateaus to the front of the back. But I still hadn’t felt the vortex, and had a large dose of the rather smug I-told-you-so feeling.
Then, Rabbi Moshe Green, one of the Rabbis from Heritage Retreats, called out, “Hey guys, can we get three minutes of total silence?” Word traveled throughout the group, and soon, at the count of three, we began our three minutes of no-noise.
I was perched on a large boulder, facing a view of extraordinary beauty. To the left and right, cliffs of red rock framed a huge verdant valley crowned by a ridge of plateaus twenty miles away. Smack in middle of my view was a lone stone column, not more than twenty feet in diameter, but over two hundred feet tall. A bald eagle soared in the sky above. But the most notable thing was the absolute silence. The absolute calm, the palpable serenity.
It was awesome and frightening all at once. The view was awesome, but being with nothing but yourself for three minutes, frightening. What was I supposed to think about? There was nothing on the agenda, no checklist to follow, no multiple choice options to choose from. It’s just you, nature, and G-d. You can think about whatever you want, but you don’t want to waste the moment.
Leiby… meet Leiby.
I can’t tell you all that I thought about, but one thing that I did think was, “Wow, I really need to do this more often!” So I did.
I happened to twist my ankle coming back down the trail, so the next day, when everyone left to go hike the Grand Canyon, I hung back, not wanting to hurt my ankle further. Instead, I drove back to Sedona and had a few hours by myself, to sit and contemplate. This time, I didn’t go up Cathedral Rock, but rather found a deserted bench facing some other gorgeous rocks, and settled down for some more no-noise time. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in years.
What I discovered is that we create our own vortexes. Spiritual flow is everywhere, all we need to do is tune out the noise, and focus on feeling it. You can feel it watching a baby sleep, you can feel it while looking at soaring mountains, the crashing shoreline, or you can feel it standing in middle of a forest. Vortexes are less determined by place, and more determined by person.
Highly sensitive people like Rabbi Avigdor Miller, OBM, were able to sit and look at an apple and feel spiritual flow. He could see the amazing works of creation in a simple apple, and use that apple as the catalyst for spiritual wonderment and connectivity to G-d. Many of us are not so spiritually developed, and we need some great vista or some place of quiet contemplation to tap into the spiritual flow of our world, but if we are willing to do the work, vortexes are everywhere.
In Jewish thought, there is a concept called “Hisbodedus,” which roughly translates as “being with yourself.” The idea is that by being by ourselves we can achieve not only serenity and joy, but also, a much deeper connection with G-d. There is something about that no-noise time that turns one’s heart to the One Above.
According to Maimonides, the great twelth century Jewish philosopher and halachists, Hisbodedus was one of the prerequisites for prophecy. In the Fundamentals of Torah (Chapter 7:4), Maimonides tells us, “All the prophets could not prophesize whenever they wanted. Rather they had to focus their minds, and they would sit happy, and with a good heart, and they would be by themselves, because prophecy would not dwell upon someone in a state of sadness or apathy, only on someone in a state of happiness.”
We are not prophets, but if we want to hear the messages from G-d that we are supposed to hear, we too need to focus our minds and be by ourselves, to open ourselves to the flow of what we are supposed to be hearing and feeling.
In our world, we are all on-call 24-7. We have cell phones, car stereos, ubiquitous computers in home and office, and myriad responsibilities and distractions. It is now more important than ever to find some no-noise time to focus inwards and really get to know ourselves.
Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, the great 17th century Kabbalist and student of the Arizal (the founder of the modern Kabbala movement) frequently known as the Shelah, writes the following,
“And it is found in many of the writing of the Early Commentators (Rishonim) that being by yourself, and removing yourself from daily life was practiced by the righteous people of Israel. Because when they were by themselves, they could remove from their minds all the matters of daily life, and they could connect their thoughts with the Creator of Everything. And so taught us the Arizal that this is very good for the soul… And according to one’s abilities they should separate themselves and be by themselves for one day of the week, or one day out of 15 days or one day a month, and one should not do less than this.”
I don’t think many of us are holding by getting away for silent contemplation one day a month let alone one day a week, but we are all able to get away a few hours a month. If we can find the proper place and time, and really give ourselves a proper experience of Hisbodedus, we will be able to tap into spiritual powers we never knew we had, and bring great serenity and clarity into our often cluttered lives.
We are the vortex.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the Manna, the spiritual food that the Jews ate for the forty years they were in the desert. It had many amazing qualities. It would miraculously just “be” there in the morning, right outside your tent if you were righteous and farther away if you were not. It tasted like anything you thought of, it had no waste products (people didn’t have excretions because of it), and it disappeared if you tried to leave it over night. If you collected too much or too little, when you got home, you would miraculously have the right amount, and on Fridays you automatically got double so that you would have Manna for Shabbos as well.
There is a famous question asked about the Manna, that it deprived the wealthy of a very important mitzvah they were accustomed to, charity. If everyone is getting food delivered to their houses by G-d daily, who needed charity, and how were the wealthy people able to continue that important mitzvah of tzedaka?
One of the answers is that the kindness and charity the wealthy people were able to perform was food coaching. The poor people grew up their whole lives without knowing that there is anything in the world more delicious than a peanut butter and fluff sandwich! Therefore they couldn’t think of an aged marinated steak grilled to perfection, or black truffle tagliatelle, with preserved lemon and aged parmesan! If they couldn’t think of it, they couldn’t taste The people who had grown up with more affluence could then provide a service to the people who had grown up in more strained economic environments by teaching them about all sorts of gourmet delights that they would now be able to conjure up in their minds and thus taste.
This past Shabbos I met a woman who does that kind of tzedaka. She teaches in the inner city of Cleveland, and she tries to help her students understand that there are greater dreams in life than an Escalade with 22 inch rims! Unfortunately, the culture her students are immersed in, is one that makes them have very limited imaginations and vision, and she tries to open their minds and teach them about great dreams they don’t even know they can aspire to.
We too can perform this kind of tzedaka. Every time we see someone limiting themselves, making statements indicating that they can’t do something, or expressing very low aspirations, it is our duty to help them see brighter, dream bigger, and aspire limitlessly!
This week’s portion begins with the Jews turning back to Egypt after having been driven from it just a few days earlier. Their goal was to fool the Egyptians into thinking that they were trapped by the desert, and prompting the Egyptians to come pursue them, which they did. Pharaoh led his men, in full battle formation, in chasing down the Jews, and they caught them right by the See of Reeds.
The Jews were trapped between a sea and a hard nation, but Moshe told them tat they could be confident as G-d would fight for them. Then Moshe told the people to keep on traveling as if there was no sea before the, but most of the people were too scared. Nachshon the son of Aminadav was the first to plunge into the waters, and just as they were about to drown him, the sea split and the entire Jewish people was able to cross through the Sea on dry land. The Egyptians followed, only for them the sea didn’t remain standing as on the bidding of G-d Moshe picked up his staff and the waters came crashing back down on the Egyptians.
The Jews, upon seeing G-d’s greatness and miracles, broke out in song, together as one. They sang the Az Yashir, a most poetic and beautiful song that is still said today daily as part of the morning prayers. The Jews were able to collect enormous amounts of gold that the Egyptians brought with them to war, and eventually had to be pulled away from the sea.
They then came to a place called Marah, where they found the water to be bitter, but G-d told Moshe to throw a tree into the water and they were sweetened. There the Jews learnt some Halachot including the laws of Shabbos. Soon afterward the Jews complained about the lack of food, and G-d gave them the Manna. After that they complained about the lack of water and G-d told Moshe to hit a rock and water came out (later in Deuteronomy is when G-d tells him to speak to the rock).
After that, the Jews had their first battle with their archenemy Amalek. they knew it would be suicidal to attack the Jews after all the miracles done to protect them, but did so anyway, just to show the world that it was possible to still attack the Jews. Moshe ascended a mountain overlooking the battle, and when he raised his hands the Jewish people would look up and remember G-d and they would be victorious, but when he would lower his hands the Jews would lose. Evidently Moshe kept them up more than down, as the Jews won! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: To be pleased, one must please. – Lord Chesterfield
Random Fact of the Week: A tree planted near a streetlight will keep its leaves longer into the fall then other trees!
Funny Line of the Week: The difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get any worse each time Congress meets.
Have a Bodacious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham