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.

Shemini Atzeret 5782

Shemini Atzeret is essentially the eighth day of Sukkot.  The literal translation is eighth day assembly.  Regarding the word, assembly, according to commentary, this has to do with the connotation of the pilgrims from outside of Jerusalem, remaining behind after the Sukkot celebrations, for one more day, to rededicate oneself to to G-d’s service, imbibing the teachings from scripture, (G-d’s Word), and staying in the Temple area before going back to the daily grind (paraphrase of Sforno’s commentary).

Moreover, let  it be understood, that during the seven days of Sukkot, there are 70 bulls offered for the seventy nations of the world, connecting the first seven days of Sukkot with the gentiles. Yet, Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day, is a day of assembly, in specific, solely for the Jewish people, as if H’Shem would like the pilgrims to remain in Israel for an intimate time of connection with G-d.

Regarding the pasuk, “On the eighth day there shall be an assembly for you” (Numbers 29:35), the Sfas Emes conveys an insight, that “it is for you because the gates of teshuva are open to all.  But Israel takes greater joy in accepting G-d’s service anew than they did in having their sins forgiven” (p.372, The Language of Truth).  Therefore, it can be said, that while the focus of Rosh Hashannah was on repentance, and the Day of Yom Kippur on forgiveness, Shemini Atzeret, a holiday connected to Simchas Torah, has a focus on renewal – the natural complement of a complete teshuvah.

This makes perfect sense, following the “shedding of sins,” as symbolized by beating the aravah (willow leaves), at the end of shachris (morning service) on Hoshannah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. After this final release of the previous year’s sins, a feeling of renewal is definitely appropriate, if everything was “done right,” in regard to teshuvah (repentance). Like, “the cleansing of the soul,” in preparation for a new year of service to G-d, via the spiritual growth, and perfection of character that result from selfless dedication to the higher values of Torah.

Ultimately, renewal may be said to involve purification through a rededication in one’s life to the service of H’Shem.  This dedication may be exemplified, as is found in Bereishis, “And G-d took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to av’dah it and to sham’rah it” (Genesis 2:15).  The root of avdah, AVD (ayinveisdalet) connotes avad (to serve), while shamrah, SMR (shinmemresh) connotes shamar (to guard).

Traditionally, these refer to serving G-d through the positive commandments, and guarding ourselves against the negative commandments. In summary, our avodah (service towards G-d), and observance of the commandments. So, when we start the Torah cycle anew, we read in Bereishis about the beginning of creation, and are reminded of the main purpose of life, our avodah, overall service towards G-d, and our shomer, otherwise understood as the guarding of our souls from all that would taint the holy neshamah.

Our Transcendent Nature

“Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.”

– Deuteronomy 32:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

Every day a Bas Kol (literally, “Daughter of a Voice”) goes out from Sinai, saying, “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, for contempt of the Torah” (Pirkei Avos 6:2). However, the voice goes unheard by mankind. Yet, the Besht points out that the voice is heard intuitively. Therefore, on some level, when the inner ear of a person resonates with that voice, a person is inspired to do teshuvah (return to G-d through repentance. Consider, if you will, that often when someone is compelled by his or heart to return to the ways of G-d, the motivation may be unseen if not unexplainable, even by the person moved to do so. Therefore, there appears to be some verifiable experience that supports this midrash; in other words, the intuitive nature of a call to teshuvah.

According to Nesivos Shalom, the opening pasukim (verses) of parashas Haazinu may be viewed in light of this midrash. One way to reckon, “Give ear, O you heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth,” is to compare the heavens to our “heavenly selves,” and the earth to our “earthly selves.” Thus our higher selves seek the inspiration of heavenly pursuits, and the influence of those pursuits upon our godly soul. While our lower nature is more inclined to be drawn to more mundane activities, and materialistic endeavors. This is the difference between ruchniyos (spirituality) and gashmiyos (corporeality). Both are necessary to some extent; yet, both must be regulated by the words flowing forth from Heaven.

We are called to permit ourselves to be permeated by the words of Torah, in both our lower and higher natures. Moreover, ultimately our lower nature should be drawn towards more noble endeavors through our focus on the higher pursuits of our godly soul. Thus, even as our lower nature, sometimes described in chassidus as the “animal soul,” needs to be tamed and regulated by Torah, and our godly soul should be modified in its higher aspirations according to G-d’s words, the emphasis should always be placed to some degree on our higher selves. The reason being is because as human beings, we are meant to transcend our lesser selves, by living in accord with the greater spiritual propensity provided for by our godly soul.

“Thy lovingkindness, O L-RD, is in the heavens; Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the skies. Thy righteousness is like the mighty mountains; Thy judgments are like the great deep; man and beast Thou preservest, O L-RD.”

– Psalms 36:6-7, JPS 1917 Tanach

motzei Shabbos: Elul Preparation

“Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in the nether-world, behold, Thou art there.”

– Psalm 139:7-8, JPS 1917 Tanach

During the month of Elul, we are called to look past the surface level of ourselves; this is no easy task for anyone caught up in images, that is to say, the presentation of oneself as an image that does not correspond to who one really is. Yet, we should be careful not to continue fooling ourselves, if we have not already recognized the false images of ourselves that we might unconsciously present to others. Instead of upgrading our image, we need to look closely at its flaws.

This is the only way to gain an honest assessment of oneself. For, we are compelled by the quality of this month to judge ourselves, in order to diminish being judged disfavourably on Rosh HaShannah. We have a full month’s preparation to examine our own conscience, for the sake of improving ourselves, by first “cleaning house.” We must empty ourselves of all the clutter that has accumulated over time, creating obstacles between us and our ideal potential.

Where can we start? In every moment, we have a starting point. That is to say, that we may start in the present moment. If recollected enough, insight can be gained into our true nature, both the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses, the virtues and the flaws. As is written, H’Shem will be with us when we are focused on the positive; and, He will also be present in our endeavor to explore our negative character traits.

Omer: Day 31 Kaleidoscopic Splendor

Omer: Day 31 Tiferes shebbe Hod

Tiferes shebbe Hod: Beauty within Splendor

(Otherwise rendered as harmony within humility).

As explained elsewhere, only through bowing down in our hearts to the splendor of the L-RD, may we also acquire splendor, by way of reflecting His Splendor. Therefore, we may find through harmonizing ourselves enough to show deference to G-d, we may bear the light bestowed upon us through our reconciliation with Him. By way of harmonizing ourselves, I mean to bring the soul into alignment with truth, by sifting through the various inconsistencies in character, called from a psychological perspective, “cognitive dissonance.” Ideally, the result would be like viewing the shapes combined into patterns within the kaleidoscope of our soul. Imagine all of the variegated shapes being lit up by light in the background; this effect would be akin to G-d’s splendor being reflected by our souls.

note: The counting of the Omer serves as a spiritual journey. We are called upon to leave our own personal limitations behind us, as we travel on the path of freedom, away from the influence of negativity in our lives. This is a forty-nine day journey, a self improvement plan, between Passover and Shavuot. Each of the seven weeks corresponds to one of the seven middos (character traits) that we will have the opportunity to improve upon in our lives.

My personal reflections on each day’s combination of middot are not meant to be comprehensive; they are not based upon any one particular system. Nor, may my insights be characterized as authoritative, because I am a student, not a teacher. I simply hope to inspire others to delve into an exploration of their own personality, for the sake of tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul).

dvar: parashas Emor 5781

“You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people – I the L-RD who sanctify you.”

– Leviticus 22:32, sefaria.org

In struggling against the yetzer harah (evil inclination) we confront the part of ourselves that is inclined towards what Freud would call our instinctual drives. His theory, in regard to the id, ego, and superego, explains that without putting a reign on the Id, man would be subject to these drives, to the extent of not being able to function within the limits of societal norms.

Man, himself, is composed of two natures, the godly soul and the animal soul. Freud’s Id represents, to some degree, the instincts of the animal soul; moreover, the ego’s role, from his point of view, is to place the Id in check, according to what he called the Reality Principle. This is done by applying the standards of the superego, an amalgamation of moral values instilled in us through family upbringing and collective societal norms.

Inasmuch that Judaism teaches the significance of following the inclinations of the godly soul, as opposed to that of the animal soul, the standards are raised – Torah calls us to a higher standard. Especially, consider that the values of Austrian society that dominated Freud’s time and place at the time of his psychoanalytic practice (Vienna, from1886 to 1938) are not held in esteem by the majority of the world today. Rather, modernity is influenced, to a lesser or greater degree by norms that would be considered substandard, when compared to those that Freud was familiar with. This decline epitomizes the lack of a substantial claim to consistent values, over the years, within society.  

Yet, the L-RD’s ways, given to us through the Torah do not change. “His ways are higher than our ways; His thoughts are higher than our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). We are expected to be righteous to the extent of subduing the inclinations of the “yetzer hara,” akin to the “animal soul,” by way of self-denial. In doing so, we make ourselves an offering, by denying ourselves for the sake of following a higher path, than the one that our animal soul would follow, were we to let it lead (G-d forbid). Shall a donkey lead the rider? Nay, a donkey (chomer) represents the body, which must be guided by the soul. In this manner shall the L-RD’s name be sanctified amongst us: “That I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people – I the L-RD who sanctify you” (Leviticus 22:32, sefaria.org). Through H’Shem’s help, we will be sanctified.

daily contemplation: Acknowledgment

B”H

February 23, 2020

“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.”

– Psalm 103:12, JPS 1917 Tanach

The derech (path) I tread is imperfect, when I walk in fear, doubt, or lack of emunah (faith). Yet, this acknowledgment in and of itself, may very well be an honest assertion, capable of rendering a sense of truth about myself. Although my transgressions may be atoned for on a daily basis, this only clears the way for greater clarity, in regard to who I am as a human being. This does not make me perfect; rather, wiping the slate clean, permits me to see more clearly my imperfections.

Everyday, we must maintain the necessity of cleaning the window of the soul. There may be many smudge marks; however, every morning brings a new opportunity to gaze into the looking glass, in a new light. Each day, it is our responsibility to work on improving our character; if not, we may fall by the wayside.

A journey, from east to west, from morning to evening; and, at nighttime, we are reminded of our personal exile, the challenges we face, as we make our way closer to the person who G-d wants us to be. “The path of the righteous is as the light of the dawn, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Meditations: Out of the Mire

B”H

February 13, 2020

“Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink.”

– Psalm 69:14, JPS 1917 Tanach

Some mornings, it is as if I’m stuck in the mire of my past; a sign for me to somehow reconcile my feelings in an honest way with myself and G-d. Waiting patiently for insight, I felt compelled to write in my journal this morning, as well as share a few words. These are candid words; I hope that they will be accessible to others for the sake of their own journey. For myself, a glimmer of light has appeared on the horizon. My hope is that the same will be true for others in due time, according to G-d’s will.

It is a progressive path, not an overnight realisation, as if everything shifts into resolution at once. The uphill climb is not easy; it takes effort, determination, and constant hope. “The L-rd is good unto them that wait for Him” (Lamentations 3:25). Perhaps, quoting this verse sounds like a contradiction. How is it possible to act and wait at the same time? Keeping with my routine, staying the course, and placing my trust in G-d, I also wait for his response to the prayers of my heart.