Wisdom of the Ages

shiur for parashas Toldos 5782

“Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.” – Genesis 26:18, JPS 1985 Tanach

The passing on of traditions from generation to generation, ad infinitum, until Malchus Elokim (the Kingdom of G-d), takes a precedent in our lives, beyond compare, ushering in the Messianic Age. These are the wells of wisdom re-dug, figuratively speaking, in every generation, from where the living waters may be drawn every day, as a fresh supply of life-sustaining spiritual truths.

Each pious individual of the succeeding generations will – H’Shem willing – make an effort like Isaac “to return and dig to the aspect of ‘a well of living water’ through many types of intelligences and great and concealed counsels” (Me’or Einayim, sefaria.org). Thus, Isaac, who re-dug his father Abraham’s wells, that had been stopped up by the Philistines, serves as an example, on a symbolic level for us.

deveykus

When merged

within the singsong chant

of a chassidic melody,

the congregant’s souls become one

for a brief moment, encapsulated

by the deveykus (connection)

to G-d that is fostered

by the unity.

~~~~~ ~~~~~

The sway

of the congregants

while davening (praying),

like flickering flames on candles,

reaching toward heaven,

assist the soul’s yearning

for deveykus (connection).

prayer: Intentional Focus

Prayer is meant to be self-reflexive. For, how can the prayers truly benefit the soul, unless the meaning of the prayers is known to the person who is praying? Yet, there is a belief that praying in Hebrew, regardless of knowledge of the Hebrew language, also benefits the soul. 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. 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.

Moreover, 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 is important. 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.

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.

It is of paramount importance to seek understanding of the meaning and significance of the words that are being prayed. Each individual should decide for him or herself, what language to pray, and how to find a healthy balance between Hebrew and one’s own language. The original Hebrew 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. For, the ultimate goal is to connect with H’Shem at the level of one’s own understanding and comfortability.

shabbos reflections: Tradition

As Shabbos approaches, I have already said, “amein” after my mother lit candles, on Zoom according to halachic time on the East Coast. After welcoming Shabbat, I recited kiddush, we partook of motzei and ate our meals quietly, as if two thousand miles were condensed into two feet across the table. Now, back in my own time zone, so to speak, I am making the most of three hours until Shabbos begins. This would not have been possible, without the many circumstances that led to this new tradition. The Coronavirus is not without its blessings; although, I would not intend to diminish the overall tragic consequences for many people that have occurred in its wake.

Yet, for myself, I carry on, introvert that I am. For, my self-imposed shelter in place policy 24-7 provided much time for reflection. And, a prolific abundance of writings that I have mostly posted on my blogs. Overall, there is no way to measure these times, except within the framework of the big picture. As incident rates of Covid-19 decrease, we will not necessarily be entering the “new normal,” unless our minds are complacent. Rather we are already entering what is more akin to a brave new world, promoted by the technocracy, i.e., the means to manage the infrastructure, ideology, and economic system of the future. This will not lead to an utopia, rather, a dystopia; therefore, I will continue to cling to G-d, Torah, and acts of kindness, instead of the “new normal.”

Heritage: Part Five

Shavuos commemorates Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. A spectacular event, the Revelation at Sinai, when the L-RD gave B’nei Yisrael the Commandments. This was the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. Being made a people unto the L-RD our bond to Him was signified with the commandments, presented as a ketubah (marriage contract) to the Bride (K’lal Yisrael). Our sovereignty as a nation begins here; the declaration being made first, with Matan Torah, then, we were brought into the Land: a people first, then, we were given a country.

Today, the Torah should still speak to our everyday lives; otherwise, Mattan Torah, becomes a glorious event, disconnected from our current times. When we learn Torah, we should feel compelled to incorporate these ideas into our lives; inasmuch that the Torah still has relevancy after so many generations. The Ten Commandments are a good place to start; perhaps, simply by naming them; then, reflecting on each one in relation to our lives.

Although we may believe in G-d, the additional question to pose to ourselves is whether or not we have accepted His Sovereignty. In this sense, as mentioned in commentary (Baal Halachos Gedolos), the first commandment is a call to believe in the existence of G-d; subsequently, accepting His authority as the source of the commandments. When we accept G-d’s Sovereignty, then the commandments become authoritative; otherwise, the commandments could be misconstrued as relative.

Consider as well, that here is a difference between accepting the commandments for ourselves, because we recognize the inherent wisdom in them, akin to the moral perspective that we uphold, versus accepting the commandments as the divine words of G-d; and, as an expression of His expectations of us, regardless of our own perspective. The Jewish people are bound to the commandments, regardless of whatever our perspective may be; therefore, the primacy of the first commandment is that the authority of all of the other commandments are hinged upon the first.

“I am the L-rd your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

– Exodus 20:2

Heritage: Part Four

When the Revelation occurred at Mt. Sinai, B’nei Yisrael were cautioned against drawing too close to the mountain. When the L-RD was present at Sinai, amidst the thunder and lightning, the status of the mountain was akin to a level of kedushah (holiness), whereby the people were compelled to keep a distance. Afterwards, when the long shofar (trumpet) blasts were sounded, the verbal barricade was lifted. Apparently, there was no inherent holiness present within the structure of Mount Sinai in and of itself. Only when the L-RD’s presence rested on the mountain, in the visible form of the spectacular firework display that surrounded His presence, were the people forbidden to draw near.

Religion itself, may seem barren to us at times, like the landscape of Sinai, when its truths are put upon a pedestal, repeated as dogma without explanation, and upheld without inquiry. Their initial appeal may encompass our attention for a while; yet, their significance may become diminished, unless explored, enhanced, and reviewed. The Talmud mentions that when a soul appears, at the time of Judgment, it is asked, whether it examined the truths of wisdom by asking questions, subsequently, gaining a practical understanding, capable of being applied to one’s life (Shabbos 31a).

Yet, the spiritual, religious, and scriptural truths that we claim to uphold, especially when professing a traditional religious belief system, may become disconnected from our lives, like a balloon that becomes untethered from the string in one’s hand, floating aloft in the sky, unless we can articulate the relevance of those truths in our own lives, and the lives of others. This is essential, in regard to walking on the derech (path) of our ancestors, albeit, in a postmodern world.

As per the thinking of Abraham Heschel, there is an imperative need to make religion relevant in our lives again, even in this very present moment. Otherwise, there may continue to be a disconnect, wherein the truths of belief and practice are not integrated into the actuality of our lives. If we lose sight of the existential significance of our religious tenets, then religion may lose its immediacy. The burden is placed upon mankind to re-establish a connection to G-d. To make truth relevant again, as Heschel advocates, by asking meaningful questions about life, then, searching our religious perspective for the answers.

“But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

– Deuteronomy 30:14, JPS 1917 Tanach

Heritage: Part Three

Why were the Commandments given in a desert? Because of its scarceness, wherein there was nothing to interfere with the receiving of G-d’s commandments. Had the commandments been given within civilization, there would have been too many competing factors, vying for the attention of B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel). This brings to mind, how it is all too true today, that there are many distractions, ideologies, and belief systems, that vie for our attention. With the proliferation of the Internet, the Age of Information has the potential to overwhelm the sensibilities of man’s soul, and spirit. We live in a different kind of wilderness than the desert, wherein B’nei Yisrael received the Torah; we live in a wilderness wherein the light of truth can hardly shine through the fabric of ideas woven into our existence, by way of pixels, optic wires, and Internet cables.

Every year, we stand on the precipice of Shavuos, the culmination of an intense focus on ourselves in light of the self renewal, that we hope to obtain over a period of forty-nine days between Passover and Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). Yet, even after our personal experience at Sinai, we may continue to receive Torah anew, each and every day of our lives, inasmuch that we have the opportunity to increase our understanding of G-d every day. He reveals Himself, within the everyday events of our lives; additionally, He guides us through our intuition, and the various circumstances that we encounter throughout our lives, even on a daily basis, if we are able to tune in to our inner vision. There is a heightened sense of awareness that may be gained, when we take the time and make the effort for every day to count; moreover, that every moment has the potential to reveal what was previously unseen. “I answered thee in the secret place of thunder” (Psalm 81:8, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Heritage: Part Two

“And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn [shofar], and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off.”

– Exodus 20:15, JPS 1917 Tanach

When B’nei Yisrael encamped at Sinai as one people, they saw the thunder, as well as the lightening atop Sinai; their experience brought them to a heightened sense of awareness, beyond the confines of our usual senses. According to the Talmud, when G-d spoke at Sinai, there was no echo of His voice; rather, His words permeated all of creation. The world was saturated with His wisdom, and all creatures were silent at the time of the revelation on Mt. Sinai. The words of Torah were imbued into every soul at the mountain, where G-d chose to reveal His commandments. His wisdom may continue to infuse us with the means to govern our lives in a holy manner, when we heed the call.

At Sinai, the Children of Israel were instilled with yiras H’Shem (fear of the L-RD), compelling in them a holy sense of awe, reverence, and respect towards H’Shem. While this essential principal of Judaism has been diminished by many, we can still reconnect with the vision at Sinai. How so? Consider that initially, the experience of B’nei Yisrael at Sinai was so intense, that “they trembled, and stood afar off.” Perhaps, the same is true to some extent for us today; something in our lives, may have caused some of us to stand farther away from Sinai than our ancestors did. Even so, we may still sense the presence of H’Shem; yet, we may be less inclined to let His words imbue us with a wisdom from above and beyond what the zeitgeist has to offer.

By standing too far away from Sinai, over the generations, we may not be as impressed with Matan Torah (literally, “the giving of the Instruction”) as our ancestors were. Through the individual ways that we experience, celebrate, and honor our Judaism, we absorb the essence of Sinai in a way that is often more acceptable for us, yet, less substantial. Yet, we are still called every year at Shavuot, to renew our commitment to our heritage.

Heritage 5781

There is a rich heritage, that carries an inspirational message across the ages: that a Jew has a place, a home, and a refuge within the belief, practice, and traditions found in the realm of yiddishkeit. There is a Jewishness about everything from potato latkes to the peyos (side curls) of an Orthodox Jew. The entire gamut of a Jewish way of life, in all of its kaleidescopic color, consists of a seamless unity from one generation to another. Despite assimilation, some semblance of the original focus (deveykus) and lifestyle of our ancestors, may still be found amongst all of us, from one end of the spectrum to the other. No matter how a Jew is defined, the pintle yid – the essential Jewishness – may always be found in one form or another.

Because the door is always open to explore the various facets of Judaism, from many different angles, opportunity prevails upon us to enter into a world that is replete with sights, sounds and experiences, that can have the effect of rekindling the glowing embers in our heart. With the help of the L-RD, these flames may be fanned into a fire of longing for a closeness to G-d, that will compel us to take that first step through the doorway. Once taken, we are in the hands of the L-RD, who will lead us along the way of our unique path on the road home to Him.

“Turn us unto Thee, O L-rd, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.”

– Lamentations 5:21, JPS 1917 Tanach

Covid Epiphany

One epiphany that occurred to me is that silence has the propensity to permeate the soul. The cessation of activity may lead to the quietude of the heart, wherein lies a stillness that fosters a calm reassurance that all is as it should be. The overall slowing down of my pace, served to create a new baseline of feeling, less anxious overall. Therefore, the quieter moments of peace were even more peaceful than prior to the diminished state of existence, whereof only the essential thrives. Within the solitude of my heart, as a benefit of quieter surroundings, and a less frenetic daily routine, true peace is found, resonant with the beginning of creation, inasmuch that certain moments more than others contain a fertile void, a ground of being, unlike any other previous awareness.