“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the L-RD of hosts.”
– Zechariah 4:6, JPS 1917 Tanach
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the L-RD of hosts.”
– Zechariah 4:6, JPS 1917 Tanach
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.
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 (ayin–veis–dalet) connotes avad (to serve), while shamrah, SMR (shin–mem–resh) 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.
“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
“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.”
“Behold, I have set before you this day the way of life, wherein is the recompense of the reward of good unto the righteous, and the way of death, wherein is the retribution of the wages of evil unto the wicked.” – Deuteronomy 30:15, Targum Yonaton
Sforno comments, “eternal life, not just life on earth” (sefaria.org). Likewise, the opposite is mentioned “eternal oblivion” (Sforno, ibid.), not only physical death. These are the destinations of the two paths, delineated in Torah – the way of life, and the way of death, corresponding to our two inclinations, the yetzer tov (good inclination), and the yetzer hara (evil inclination). In the modern world, it is not always clear what choices we make will lead us down one or the other road. This is mostly because, there are no signposts to be found, showing us which way we are headed. The world would like us to believe that all roads lead to Rome, Nirvana, or G-d. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
In the Torah, G-d is explicit, concerning the path we are to follow, and the path that we are not to follow. “Behold, I have set before you this day the way of life, wherein is the recompense of the reward of good unto the righteous, and the way of death, wherein is the retribution of the wages of evil unto the wicked” (Targum Jonathan on Deuteronomy 30:15, sefaria.org). If we make an effort to follow our good inclination, by listening to the conscience, and doing what is right, then we will be rewarded for our efforts. Yet, if we give in to the evil inclination, adhering to our “lesser instincts,” falling prey to sin, then we will receive retribution for actions. It is more challenging to do good, than to be lured into temptation by the desires of the heart. For this reason, we can only conquer the yetzer hara with the help of G-d.
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).
“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.
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
“And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled.”
– Exodus 19:16, JPS 1917 Tanach
“G-d hath so made it, that men should fear before Him.”
– Ecclesiastes 3:14, JPS
At Mount Sinai, the people in the camp trembled at the awesome display of H’Shem’s Presence, amidst the thunder and lightning. The people’s sense of yiras H’Shem (fear, awe, and reverence towards the L-RD) was elicited by the spectacular display, when the Commandments were given to B’nei Yisrael through Moshe (Moses). This may serve as an example for us, when we gather ourselves together, in order to receive the Torah anew in our lives on the day of Shavuot. The thunder and lightening that humbled the people at Sinai, demonstrate the importance of yiras H’Shem for our own lives. “The fear of H’Shem is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).
When we seek to develop awe, reverence, and proper respect towards H’Shem, we are planting a foundation within us that will bring wisdom and understanding into our lives. “And knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). G-d seeks to bring our heart into alignment with His ways, by compelling us to seek teshuvah (repentance), that we may truly start anew. The powerful reminder of thunder is a natural occurrence that should serve as a wake-up call. According to the Talmud, thunder was created for this very purpose (Berachos 59a). On Shavuot, we stand once again, ready to leave our personal Mitzraim (Egypt) behind us, as we renew our commitment to keep the Covenant made at Mt. Sinai with B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel).
For well over a year, many of us have been “camped out” within our own personal deserts; yet, it would be good to consider that the desert is where the Torah was given to B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel). The desert is a place where the mind is unhindered from distractions, and solace may be found in the stillness of Sinai. In the desert, there is an opportunity for spiritual growth; and, room for a shift in perspective.
Moreover, if we have not been placing an emphasis on ruchniyos (spirituality), the opportunity still prevails. I strongly believe that without an emphasis on ruchniyos, human beings, myself included, may too easily get caught up in gashmios (materiality). Yet, we may always reach out towards H’Shem (the L-RD), so that we may be simultaneously drawn to Him.
When Moshe entered “the thick cloud” (Exodus 19:9) on Sinai, he was called even further, he “drew near unto the thick darkness where G-d was” (Exodus 20:18, JPS 1917 Tanach). This serves as an example for us, in our quest to grow closer to G-d. He is found within the darkness of our lives, concealed within the hardships, trials and tribulations.
We may ask ourselves, when will the clouds part, and the light begin to shine in our lives? Perhaps, there will be no parting of the clouds, until we learn how to transform the challenges in our lives, by using them as opportunities to seek G-d, so that His presence, may comfort us during our nisyanos (troubles). Then, we may enter back into life, renewed with godly strength and vigour, as a result of our own personal Sinai experience, no matter how many days we may actually be on the mountain, waiting to descend and step back into the world.