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.

The Crown of Creation

Mankind is the crown of creation. All of creation was created first, then mankind was created on the sixth day. Paleontology records show the same natural progression of life on earth. Obviously, mankind could only flourish in an environment with suitable conditions towards life; so, those conditions were created before placing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Whether this is viewed as a myth, parable, or symbolic explanation of creation, it is meant to show how man’s place in the world is significant. We were made to be stewards of the earth: (Genesis 2:15). Therefore, mankind is not only part of G-d’s overall creation; rather, the crowning achievement, and reason for creation itself. In order to bring about the full divine plan encapsulated throughout the Bible.

There is a teaching in Judaism that on the one hand the world was created for every individual on the face of the planet. While on the other hand, we are only part of the greater whole. These two perspectives exist in actual life in tandem with each other. As the story goes, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pesicha carried two notes in separate pockets. One read, “the world is created for you.” the other note read, “I am mere dust and ashes.” The teaching is profound, and conveys the dual nature of life. On the one hand, each person is a unique individual created by G-d. Everyone may view his or her life from a self-centered perspective, as if the world and all it contains is for his or her benefit. On the other hand, in order to remain humble, and not overstep one’s boundaries, or raise oneself up in pride, it is important to remember, “I am but dust and ashes.”

Additionally, I would like to mention that G-d has a plan for each and every person on the dace of the planet. It is written in Psalms that G-d numbered all of the stars, and gives names to all of them” (Psalms 147:4). How much more so does He take note of each person’s plight on earth, through what is called hashgacha (divine guidance)? Whether we realize G-d’s influence in our lives or not depends in part of how cognizant we are of the tapestry being woven over time, that creates the bigger picture of how various events in our individual lives connect to form a greater whole. Meaning can be derived from our own existence, personal responsibilities, and dignity in how we approach the challenges of life. Human beings are thinking, talking, autonomous beings to some extent; yet, also subject to G-d’s sovereignty. Life is meant to bring us to the awareness of our place in the Universe, as individuals, who are created in G-d’s image. Ultimately, we are obligated to live up to that image: imatatio Dei.

Omer: Day 9 gevurah of gevurah – restraint of might

The strength of gevurah relies on the ability to restrain oneself. “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Yet, restraint of ourselves is key, not only for the benefit of our soul, also for the sake of being in a position to offer diplomatic relations to those who enter into conflict with us. Another effective saying to keep in mind is that “he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife” (Proverbs 15:18). We would do well to learn from the wise words of King Solomon, for our hearts are heavy with the burdens we face; yet, too often, we are tempted to respond to others in a reactive way, rather in a manner of restraint.

If I may further explain, by way of a concrete example too rampant today. We might have fallen prey to the divisiveness that permeates society, dividing people into subgroups of us and them; the bitterness that festers as a result of demonizing the other, will only further the perpetuation of the lack of harmony in our lives, especially when our thoughts and rhetoric approaches the vitriolic. Being critical of others, through an excessive expression of gevurah, has the potential to devolve into the creation of newly marginalized classes of people in society, that may be increasingly demonized through generalizations. In this manner, tyranny rules the heart (G-d forbid).

Omer Count: Day 2 – the Boundary of Kindness

17 Nissan 5781

March 30, 2021

gevurah within chesed

What follows consists of my personal reflections on the implications of today’s combination of middot (character traits). These reflections are not meant to be comprehensive, inasmuch that they are not based upon any one particular system. Nor, may these ideas be characterized as authoritative, because I profess to being a student, not a teacher. I hope to inspire others to delve into an exploration of their personality, for the sake of tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul).

The middah (character trait) of gevurah may be expressed as a measure of strictness. Therefore, one way of conceiving of gevurah within chesed could have to do with applying a measure of strictness to the quality of kindness. Placing a limit on our kindness, in response to the awareness that not every situation is best suited to respond in kindness involves a dash of wisdom. Therefore, chesed may require the use of discernment, in order to ascertain how much kindness would best benefit the recipient. Too much kindness might appear as ingratiating. Elsewise, being overly kind in order to please others could result in our resentment, when we give in to others demands. Placing a boundaried response on others requests, gives us a sense of acting from our center being, keeping our needs in mind, without overextending ourselves.

Consider how G-d’s chesed, His sense of kindness may be purposely limited at times for a specific reason, actually for the sake of the recipient. He is known to test the faith of those who have a certain level of trust in Him, by delaying a response to one’s tefillah (prayer) requests. This would be enacted on His part to test the strength of our faith. Also, He may not respond in the manner that one expects, because the specific request if answered in the way that the prayer was framed, would not best benefit that individual. In like manner, we should also be cautious, and excercise discernment in regard to how we respond to others who may seek our time, attention, or help.

Additionally, it might seem counterintuitive at the time; yet, a withholding attitude may be required at times, for the sake of another person’s personal growth. Refraining from helping someone too much may serve to encourage that person to do more for him or herself. So, often there needs to be a balance between chesed and gevurah in our responses to others; so, that the demands of the situation may be met in the most beneficial way to all concerned. An extreme version of applying a strong measure of gevurah to chesed would be the case in certain rare circumstances, to apply the notion of “tough love.” In this case, an act perceived as severe by the intended recipient might actually be more of an expression of sincere love, than giving in to another person, thereby enabling the other to perpetuate an undesirable behavior.

Utlimately, finding the right balance in any situation is not easy. Often our response depends upon our own personality; for example, whether or not we are a chesed person, naturally demonstrating loving-kindness or whether we are more of a gevurah person, who is inclined to be more reserved and circumspect in responding to others. This example may best serve as a segue towards tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul), the precise purpose of the forty-nine day spiritual journey. To take an honest look at ourselves includes evaluating our character. If we withold kindness from others when we should be kind, this may denote an imbalance in the personality. Conversely, if we routinely find that being too nice to others has negative consequences for ourselves, then there may also be an imbalance of these qualities in our personality.

The task at hand is to reflect upon ourselves, in a manner that will bring the greatest level of shalom (peace) to our souls, as well as the lives of others on this journey. Moreover, in like manner that the Children of Israel had the opportunity to prepare themselves along the way to Sinai for receiving the Torah, so may we refine ourselves for the sake of our relationship to G-d. The first five commandments have to do with our connection to G-d, while the second set of five commandments are in regard to our relationship with others. Both are necessary on the journey of life; so, to shape our personalities in accordance with G-d’s will has the potential to bring the greatest overall benefit to our self and others.