Review of two books by Reb Zalman
The voices of American Muslim men

With whatever is best

The Holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) teaches us that our every intention and acton changes the whole world, either driving us away from God or bringing us closer, either healing the world or harming it.

So writes my teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg in his essay "Blessings in the Darkness" (in Writings from the Heart of Jewish Renewal, a publication of ALEPH, 2003.) In that essay he introduces something he calls the Chesed (lovingkindness) Meditation. He and his wife Bahira adapted it from Rabbi Jeff Roth, who adapted it in turn from a Buddhist metta meditation. I first experienced this meditation at a Tuesday afternoon mincha service on retreat at Elat Chayyim in 2005.

Reb Shaya writes:

This is how we do it:

Begin with yourself. As you inhale, say internally, "May I be blessed with..." As you exhale, imagine yourself as you finish the blessing, "shalom, peace and wholeness."

Continue that breathing/imagining pattern. "May I be blessed with...simcha, joy. May I be blessed with...r'fuah, healing. May I be blessed with...whatever is best."

Why begin with yourself? It is the airplane principle: before you help someone else with her oxygen mask, put yours on first. If I am under-blessed, how can I bless? So resist the temptation to skip that part. Don't feel it's too egocentric, but rather that we all deserve to be blessed! All of us!

After going through this with oneself, Reb Shaya teaches, one can offer this meditation with someone else in mind. Imagine a loved one, and as you breathe, think to yourself: may this person be blessed with wholeness. May they be blessed with joy. May they be blessed with healing. May they be blessed with whatever is best.

If that's easy -- and it may be -- stretch yourself a little. Imagine being at the grocery store, in traffic, at a gas station, and seeing someone you don't know. Can you find it in yourself to say these same silent blessings for a stranger? (I would add: imagine interacting with someone online: a blogger, a commenter, the people who comment on news articles. Can you offer these blessings for them?)

Reb Shaya doesn't stop there. It's our obligation, he writes, to offer these blessings even for those we actively dislike:

Because someone who feels fully blessed would not do the things they do! We want those who play the role of the enemy for us to be truly happy. Happy people don't intentionally harm and destroy. It's critical that when I'm blessing someone difficult, I am not hating them. When we bless we channel the holy energy of blessing through us. In the very act of blessing another, especially one whom we feel the least like blessing, the intensity of blessing required to overcome our own inner resistance spills over into the world.

Maybe my favorite part of this practice is the final line: "...with whatever is best." I may not know what's best for me. I may not know what's best for you, or for the stranger in the check-out line at the grocery store, or for the person I can't help finding challenging. When I offer this blessing, it's an opportunity for me to relax gratefully into the humility of not needing to know what's best. I'm not in charge. At best, I can try to make myself a conduit for blessing, but the nature of the blessing -- that's not up to me.

We offered this blessing this morning toward the end of our Friday morning meditation minyan. I hadn't looked at this essay in a while, so I didn't remember that one of the lines is a blessing for healing; now I'm not sure what I offered this morning, though I think it was the quartet of peace, joy, wholeness, and whatever is best. (Same general principle, anyway.) It was a really sweet practice, and when it was over, after the closing niggun and the closing meditation bell, we sat in the sanctuary and beamed at each other. What a lovely way to begin the ending of my week.