prayer: Intentional Focus

While many hold the belief that praying in Hebrew, despite knowing the meaning of the words, is beneficial to the soul, this strikes me as problematic if prayer is meant to be self-reflexive. How can the prayers truly benefit the soul, unless the meaning of the prayers is known to the person who is praying? The belief that praying in Hebrew, regardless of knowledge of the Hebrew language is nothing short of a mystical claim. And, while it may be the case that the soul benefits, this could be at the expense of the individual’s actual understanding of the words.

Yet, it is well known that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of Breslov chasidism advocated the need to pray in one’s own language. I find this approach refreshing, inasmuch that he understood the importance of kavanah (intention) at the level of praying in a meaningful way. More importantly, I would mention, is to not only pray in one’s own language, at least for some of the prayers, but to be able to comprehend the meaning of the words one prays.

Permit me to explain what I mean, if you will. Words have meaning in and of themselves; a dictionary is a handy guide to those meanings when unsure of what a word conveys, or how it is used in  a sentence. However, the words of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) have meaning above and beyond the words themselves, and must be understood within the greater context of the themes of the biblical narratives they portray, as well as their theological significance.

This is why the siddur (prayer book) has been described as an overall composite of what is most significant in Judaism. The prayers are an active means for inculcating the values, traditions, and beliefs of Judaism into our lives. As such, the siddur should garner our greatest attention, and praying should not end up being a rote experience, performed without true intention or understanding. If our prayer experience is dry, then we need to somehow make amends.

One way to do so is to increase a sense of kavanah (attention; intentional reading) through specific techniques designed for this purpose. For example, if praying too fast, one way to slow down is to pause, every time the name YHVH is written, otherwise denoted by the words H’Shem or  L-RD. This serves to develop a pace whereby reflection becomes possible, by paying more attention to the words that are being prayed. This is davening with kavanah, when the words have a direct and immediate impact on the soul of the individual praying.

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Additionally, I would like to add that personally, I pray in both Hebrew and English, despite the fact that I only know how to pronounce Hebrew, without understanding the meaning. Yet, I seek to understand the meaning and significance of the words that I pray in English; and, I hope to learn the meaning of the Hebrew in due time (im yirtzei H’Shem). I believe that it is up to each individual to decide for him or herself, what language to pray, and whether or not to find a healthy balance between Hebrew and one’s own language, if Hebrew is not understood.

By no means would I advocate abandoning the Hebrew prayers, for these prayers are established by chazal (the sages) and should not be changed. At least not to the extent that they are unrecognizable in an English translation, or seem to abandon the original intent. And, so, while I recognize the value of the prayers in a conservative or reform siddur (prayer book), I myself prefer a more traditional siddur, such as one published by Artscroll. To each his own, if the ultimate goal is to connect with H’Shem at the level of one’s own understanding and comfortability.

Abraham, the Hebrew – Part Two

motzei Shabbos: parashas Vayeira 5782

There is an added dimension of Judaism that can be learned from the example of Abraham, when he is not cast in the light as being the first Jew. Words have connotations that can sometimes be misleading when the word is applied in a more general manner than its normal usage. Case in point, in regard to Abraham, who led an exemplary life, about four hundred years, before the Torah was given. How was he able to live in a manner that exceeded the level of morality of that generation? One answer is found in the phrase, derech eretz (literally, “way of the land”), that connotes being a mentch (good person), inclusive of basic ethics, a sense of responsibility, and consideration of others. In fact, this is considered to be a prerequisite for the observance of mitzvoth (commandments, as per found in the Torah). So, the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob serve as examples of derech eretz, whereof we can learn the basic positive character traits that G-d would expect of us, before we even place ourselves, figuratively speaking, of course, at the base of Mount Sinai, where the Torah was given.

Yet, if Abraham is cast in the framework of being the first Jew, as if being Jewish were synonymous with the observance of the mitzvoth, then we will totally miss the point of what the moral legacy of Abraham has to offer us. Furthermore, above all else, Abraham exemplified emunah in the form of his faithfulness towards H’Shem, as demonstrated by his obedience to H’Shem’s directive, when tested ten times throughout his life. Torah specifically states, about Abraham, “And he believed in the L-RD; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Therefore, let us not forget the primacy of emunah (faith) in our lives, when considering our own relationship to H’Shem. Is this faith also a prerequisite to the observance of Torah? If we consider the nature of the first commandment, then faith is primary, as stated, “I am the L-RD your G-d,” a declarative statement that according to commentary implies that the first commandment is the directive to believe in G-d; only then, to receive the mitzvoth based upon the authority of the One who  gave us the commandments at Sinai.

erev Shabbos: The Sabbath Rest

A brief reading and comment upon a passage from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, The Sabbath. What does commentary mean to say, that G-d created “menuha” (rest) on the Seventh Day?

note: in the video, I meant to say “25 hour period,” instead of having said “25 day period,” as per denoting the actual time period of Sabbath observance.

erev Shabbos reflection: Vayeira 5782

The slowing down of time, only possible when all of my chores are behind me. I am reminded of the scene in the Fidler on the Roof movie, where everyone is preparing for Shabbos: laundry to finish, milk and challah to be delivered, and changing into one’s finery to greet the Sabbath Queen. For myself, I have my blogposts, podcasts, and videos that need to be wrapped up, in addition to food preparation, and sabbath greetings via the Internet.

I rarely go out erev Shabbos Friday evening, because I prefer a quiet, more traditional, welcoming of the sacred seventh day, via the necessary kavanah (mental preparation), that will make the entirety of the twenty-five hour day more meaningful. So, I generally do not attend community Shabbat dinners at the synagogue, nor accept invitations to homes, where there will be more than a half dozen people at the table. Introvert that I am, this permits me to transition into the Day of Rest, in a manner that is potentially full of reverence and kedushah (holiness).

The Essence of a Test

“G-d did prove [test] Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I’ [Hineni]. And he said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee [lech lecha] into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’”

– Genesis 22:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

As for Abraham’s response, when he was called by H’Shem, “Hineni,” commentary reads, “Such is the answer of the pious: it is an expression of meekness and readiness (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 22; sefaria.org). With one word, Abraham demonstrated his commitment to G-d as his servant; so, that in a state of preparedness to obey whatever commanded of him, when told to bring his son, Isaac up as an offering, he did not flinch.

The question may be asked, that if G-d is omniscient (all-knowing), why did he need to test Abraham’s faithfulness towards Him? Nachmanides’ comment, seems to answer this question, that Abraham showed he was willing to “bring forth the matter from the potential into actuality so that he may be rewarded for a good deed, not for a good thought alone” (Nachmanides on Genesis 22:1, sefaria.org).

This is the nature of our lives, that G-d would test the quality of our every breath, were it possible, to see if we are willing to serve Him with our all – that is every ounce and fiber of our being. Yet, the tests that are designed for us, the challenges that are tailor made for each individual, are done so in order to create an opportunity for our strengths to be expressed in actuality, thereby demonstrating the veracity of our positive character traits. Additionally, “G-d trieth the righteous” (Psalms 11:5), in order to increase a sense of righteousness within an individual, so that moral rectitude will permeate his being (Bereishis Rabbah 34).

Fair is Fair

“G-d heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for G-d has heard the cry of the boy from where he is.”

– Genesis 21:17, JPS 1985 Tanach

The midrash comments on the phrase, “from where he is,” by paraphrasing it as such: “in that condition in which he now is” (Genesis Rabbah 53:14, sefaria.org). As further explained, “He shall be judged according to his present deeds, and not according to those actions which he may do in the future” (Ramban; sefaria.org). Nachmanides further notes that the plain meaning is that G-d would provide water for the boy, in the very place that he was without further ado. And, so G-d opened the eyes of Hagar, whereafter “she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink” (Genesis 21:19).

Thus, if a generalization can be made, two inferences may be drawn out, one each from these two different interpretations. In the plain sense of the verse, G-d will meet us where we are at, when we call out to Him. In our very present needs, we seek relief from G-d when all else seems to fail. Our nisyanos (challenges) in life are sometimes of this kind. And, H’Shem willing, our help will appear in a manner that may even be unexpected, inasmuch that we had not considered such and such prior to our eyes being opened to the potential source of benefit for our relief.

In the more theological sense of the verse, we are seen by G-d for who we are at the time of need, regardless of who we will become in the future. For, “the L-RD is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 149:9, JPS 1917 Tanach). Consider how Lot was blessed through the merit of Abraham, despite Lot’s immoral behavior that expressed itself, later, after he was spared from the fire and brimstone that fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah. It is important to note, that our condition in the future will be judged: if the righteous fall into a life of sin, “none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered.” And, if the wicked turn away from a sinful lifestyle, “none of his sins that he committed shall be remembered against him” (Ezekiel 33:12-16, JPS).

Vayeira – 2

“And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

– Genesis 22:2, JPS 1985 Tanach

The epitome of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac was the resolve necessary on the part of Abraham, to follow through with G-d’s commandment to bring his son, Isaac as an offering to the mountain shown to him. This was the tenth and final test of his faithfulness towards G-d, as proved by his obedience to carry out His will. Previously, Abraham trusted in G-d, to follow His directives, despite all of the prevailing challenges, ramifications, and risks involved. Now, he acceded to the command to give up Isaac, his only son, who was destined to carry on the legacy, mission, and message of the One True G-d. Yet, Abraham trusted in H’Shem; perhaps, knowing that He would be able to resurrect Isaac, as implied by the Zohar, whereof the beracha, “Blessed is He who quickens the dead,” is attributed to Abraham, right before he was about to offer up Isaac.

The tension point between Abraham and Isaac occurs when Isaac asks his father, Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering [olah]?” Abraham responds, “‘G-d will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’” Then, the narrative conveys the resolution to Isaac’s concern: “So they went both of them together” (Genesis 22:7-8, JPS 1917 Tanach). The challenge of Isaac was to be in one accord with G-d’s will. As the sages explain, “it was at this moment that Isaac realized that he was to be the offering; even so, he was one within the intentions of his father. They went together to the mizbeach (altar), prepared on Mount Moriah. Rashi comments, “with equal intentions to fulfil the will of the Creator” (sefaria.org). Therefore, let not Isaac’s commitment be diminished, for he willingly went with his father Abraham, up the mountain. “He carried the wood on his back, like a man bearing his cross” (Genesis Rabbah 56).

Vayeira – 1

“And the L-RD appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he rant to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, and said: ‘My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.” – Genesis 18:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The traditional rendering, according to most commentaries is puzzling. The verse reads, “My l-rd, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant” (Genesis 18:3). Most commentators view this request to be addressed to the L-RD from Abraham, asking for His presence to remain, while he attends to his three guests. Yet, a closer reading reveals a more nuanced view: Abraham “prostrated himself on the ground,” and then made his request to the three guests, who were in front of him.

Moreover, the word rendered above as lord, is the Hebrew word, “Ad’nai.” It is first used in the Tanach, when Abraham addresses the L’RD, in regard to his inheritance, inasmuch that he was to be the father of nations, yet, was childless. The word, can mean Master, and indicates Abraham’s acknowledgment of the L’RD as L’rd of his life. When he prostrates, as mentioned above, in front of the three men, who are really angels, he is addressing them at the same level he addresses the L-RD.

“And the L-rd appeared to him. How? Three men who were angels came to him.”

– Rashbam, sefaria.org

Abraham, the Hebrew

motzei Shabbos: parashas Lech Lecha 5782

“Abram the Hebrew – now he dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre.”

– Genesis 14:13, JPS 1917 Tanach

I would like to give a brief shpiel, in regard to the designation of Abraham as an Ivri. This word, denoting his ethnicity, as it were, is transliterated as “Hebrew.” And, in fact, if somebody speaks Ivrit, that means he speaks the Hebrew language. While for all intended purposes, on behalf of those who would like to instill a sense of continuity into Judaism, by claiming that Abraham was the first Jew, this is not actually the case, according to the most basic chronology in regard to the use of the word, Jew, as referring to a specific population or adherent of the religion referred to as Judaism. It would be more to say that Abraham was the first monotheist, as will be shown later in the discussion on the actual meaning of the word, Ivri.

The term Jew is derived from Judah, who was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Each of the twelve tribes of Jacob consisted of persons who were referred to as members of their particular tribes, such Benjamites, Ephraimites, and Danites. So, a Judahite would have specifically been a member of the tribe of Judah. Not until sometime after the destruction of the first temple, and the seventy year exile, did the term Judahite become a more general designation. Why? Because, primarily, only members of the tribe of Judah and Benjamin returned to Israel after the seventy year exile – the Judahites, being the more populous tribe.

So, what is the significance of pointing out the difference between the words, ivri and Jew, inclusive of their actual use in history, as opposed to placing meanings upon them, derived from a perspective that recasts, specifically, the word “Ivri” in a quasi-religious light? One benefit is clear, in regard to being able to draw out the actual implications of the word Ivri (Hebrew), that referred to Abraham, and his descendants, who also became known as Israelites. For example, the word Ivri is said to mean “the other side;” thus, Abraham was from the other side of the Euphrates River (Rashi; Genesis Rabbah 42:8). From a symbolic perspective, commentary notes that Abraham was on the other side, in regard to his newfound monotheistic faith, while the rest of the world was steeped in idolatry.

Another point of significance is to make clear that the word Jew, eventually designated the same people known as Hebrews and Israelites, only many generations later, while living in the land of Israel, during the second Temple period. Yet, even to think of Abraham’s descendants living in Israel at that time as Jews, in the same sense that we think of ourselves today, would not be exactly correct either. Namely, because there was no religion, per se, in and of itself, called Judaism at that time. What we think of as the Jewish religion today, was simply the national way of life at the time, mostly centered around Temple worship, as well as synagogues that had been established around the country. The Judaism that we practice today is the result and consequence of our expulsion from Israel after the second Temple was destroyed in 70  C.E. At that time, a center of learning was established in a city called Yavneh, where the sages learned, and from where the Mishnah was eventually codified. Centuries later, Judaism continued to flourish, because of the continuity provided for by way of the Talmud, the observance of the mitzvoth (commandments), and the traditions.

A Test of Integrity

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine and he was the kohein (priest) of El (G-d) the Most High.” – Genesis 14:18

“Five possessions did the Holy Blessed One, set aside as his own in this world, and these are they: The Torah, one possession; Heaven and earth, another possession; Abraham, another possession; Israel, another possession; The Temple, another possession.” – Avos 6:9, sefaria.org

“G-d acquired these five possessions to serve as the instruments by means of which He can bestow His kindness and generosity on man, to let him rise to the lofty position of comprehending His greatness.” – Akeidat Yitzchak, sefaria.org

A tenth of all that Abraham retrieved from the five kings was given to Melchizedek; the remainder was considered properly tithed from the perspective of a later Torah injunction; yet, Abraham kept none of this, for his reward has to do with heaven and earth. Therefore, what has any man to offer Abraham? The King of Sodom’s riches would have been devoid of any spiritual blessing, since they would not have been bestowed upon Abraham by G-d; but, rather by man.

While it is true that blessings can be given to someone through men, according to G-d’s design, this would not have been the case, in regard to the loot that was recovered by Abraham, when rescued his nephew Lot, who was captured by the five kings. Why? Because Abraham was righteous, and “disdained profit gained through oppression” (Akeidas Yitzchak; sefaria.org). That is to say, that he forsook the wealth that was rightly his according to custom in order to maintain his integrity.

Every now and then, we may find ourselves in a similar position, not necessarily having to do with possessions; rather, as pertaining to a challenge designed to test the integrity of our convictions. Our belief and practice, as well as the strength of our convictions must be tested, so that we are able to permit these to take root in actuality. The tests designed for Abraham, throughout the narrative of his life, as recorded in Torah, may also be understood this way.

“The L-RD trieth the righteous.” – Psalms 11:5, JPS 1917 Tanach