Mishnah Insights: Spiritual Cleanliness

Mishnah Daily Study: Berachos 3:4-5


In regard to prayer and study, in that order, to what extent is spiritual purity required? The Mishnah addresses this question in specific terms, while I will attempt to draw a broader perspective. Various views range from distancing oneself from prayer and study, until one has become spiritually cleansed (through immersion in water), thus freeing his conscience from guilt, versus permitting oneself to engage in prayer and study in a less direct manner, such as forming the words of prayer in one’s mind, and studying without reading aloud, even before immersion.

I ask myself, what is the concern at hand, in regard to engaging in prayer or study, with unclean hands (see Psalm 24:4)? Perhaps, because G-d is a consuming fire, as is mentioned elsewhere, so that if we approach Him in a condition less than pure, or a state of mind that is not reconciled to Him, we risk the occurrence of having our soul singed. Thus, approaching G-d in an unworthy manner, could have the effect of bringing judgment upon ourselves (G-d forbid).

Moreover, both prayer and study require concentration; so, so the soul needs to be recollected, in order to engage in these meaningful spiritual activities. This is not to say, that we can not approach G-d in our unworthiness, and ask Him to cleanse us. Rather, the traditional times of prayer and study that we are accustomed to would be diminished in their effectiveness, if we are still wallowing in the dirt of our aveiros (transgressions).

In the time of King Solomon, a large vessel made of brass, described as a “molten sea” was placed on twelve oxen, also cast of brass, placed in proximity to the entrance of the Beis HaMikdash or Temple. The waters contained therein were for purification. Before we enter into dialogue with G-d, we need to cleanse our hearts through teshuvah (repentance).

Reflections on a Bris

It’s the middle of the week, two days after Chanukah, one day after the memorial of my father’s transition, according to the Gregorian calendar. I attended a bris this afternoon at the local shul. While standing silently in the last row of a small sanctuary, during the proceedings, with the sunlight streaming through the windows, and the pensive quality of my thoughts, it seemed as if angels were gathered at this auspicious moment. Otherwise, since I had awoken at 1:00 a.m. this morning, and only dozed off for a brief rest at my desk, later in the morning, perhaps, because of lack of sleep, my imagination took flight and fancy, within the realm of the spiritual.

When the infant was named, seemingly so, after a prominent rebbe, I thought of the continuity of tradition across the generations. How my own great great grandfather, who my father is named after, studied under a Chassidic rabbi in Poland, Rabbi Perlow, who passed away in 1943. And, so, not only was the Chassidic heritage broken when my great grandfather immigrated to the U.S.; rather, also, that specific line of chassidism was interrupted; although, Rabbi Schneebalg continued the line of Bolechover Chassidism into the current century. Regardless, the personal connection for me is one only recently resurrected, so to speak, in the dark recesses of my mind, where memories persist, despite the conflagration of the Shoah.

When the infant was ceremoniously brought into the sanctuary, he was placed on a white pillow, wrapped in a bundle, and carried by the presiding rabbi. This occurred after everyone present was asked to stand, and remain standing for the entire proceedings. How apropos, I thought, for the infant to be honored as if being brought as an offering unto H’Shem; for, surely, the intent is for the newly born member of the Jewish people to “offer himself” as a soul committed to the observance of G-d’s commandments in every aspect of his life; and, he will be brought up with that intent. Within the framework of the religious family that he was born into, the customs of our ancestors are preserved, in addition to G-d’s commandments.

heirloom

An unmeasured amount of blessings,

found within these two leather boxes;

a treasure beyond compare to things,

discarded after wear & tear, and disuse.

My tefillin contain the keys to life,

divinely-inspired words for my heart,

to contemplate, while setting aside strife;

and permit my soul to regain its art.

These pearls of lasting value,

bestowed upon me by my mother,

after my father’s transition to shomayim,

so that I can carry on the sacred task.

How many generations were these passed

down from father to son, until I received

them at last, that wearing them might mend

my fractured soul, and renew my strength?

Every morning before sunrise, I bind

the leather straps seven times around my arm;

and, place the second box upon my head,

carefully above the hairline, according to halacha –

a repository of tradition, to safeguard my faith.

Tradition & Remembrance

Halloween, traditionally known as All Hallow’s Eve was originally a solemn vigil that preceded All Hallow’s Day (All Saints Day) on November 1st. Although, apparently, there were pagan origins to the day itself, before the Church’s innovation, for Western civilization in Europe, the day connoted respect for the dead, within a traditional Christian framework. Therefore, having superseded the pagan origins, the intent was to prepare for the remembrance of the saints the next day, as well as all of the departed souls, remembered on All Soul’s Day (November 2nd). It was believed that prayers could be offered on behalf of the dead who were in purgatory, that they might eventually be freed in order to make their ascent to Heaven.

In the Jewish tradition, we have nothing of the sort on this day that is reckoned according to the Gregorian calendar. Rather, we have Yizkor, and other traditions to commemorate our loved ones who have passed away. Yet, there are some striking similarities, if I dare to mention some of them. When we say the kaddish prayer, in particular, this is a prayer that specifically praises G-d, and does not mention death at all. Because the dead can no longer perform mitzvoth (good deeds), we say prayers on their behalf, so to speak, to bring them closer to G-d; thus, I believe that even if they are in Gehenna, their souls may benefit for the good. When lighting a yahrzeit (memorial) candle, on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, a traditional prayer requests an aliyah (ascent) for the soul of the one who has passed away. Respect for the dead is of the utmost importance in Judaism.

The Bundle of Life

parashas Chayei Sarah 5782

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.” – Genesis 23:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

It’s interesting to note, that Judaism is often regarded as a worldly religion, focusing on our earthly lives, while not placing much emphasis on the next life, otherwise known as Olam Haba – the World-to-Come. However, when we delve into Torah, looking below the surface of the plain meaning, we begin to see a different picture. Additionally, the teachings of Chazal (the Sages), can inform us as well, concerning a perspective that brings us into a fuller knowledge of Torah.

Torah itself may be compared to the ocean, perhaps, because its depths are unfathomable. Moreover, it is recorded in Torah, that the number of creatures in the ocean is uncountable; perhaps, this also applies to Torah itself, in regard to the many facets of Torah. It is said that there are seventy faces of Torah, connotating the teaching that Torah presents its mysteries in many ways.

The parashas begins with the death of Sarah, a seemingly disconnected beginning to a narrative entitled Chayei Sarah – the Life of Sarah. Yet, the first word of the parashas, vayechi, meaning “life,” according to R. Bachya implies “something that exists permanently,” thereby, it could be inferred that this hints towards the understanding that her soul would “take up permanent residence in the celestial regions” (R. Bachya, commentary on Genesis 23:1, sefaria.org).

In this respect, Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah may be understood as an implicit message or remez (hint), concerning Sarah’s continued existence in Olam Haba. Thus the title of the parashas points to the promise of an Afterlife for the righteous in the World-to-Come. We see this promise reiterated, in regard to Abraham, towards the end of the parashas: “And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8).  

This phrase, “gathered to his people” (vayei’asef el amaiv) is likened by Sforno to the bundle of life: “the bundle of souls who are part of the life after death, all of whom the righteous of the various generations who were like him in lifestyle” (Sforno, sefaria.org). Sforno continues, “there are all kinds of different spiritual levels among the righteous souls, not all attained the same level of righteousness while on earth although all of them share the experience of enjoying eternal life” (Sforno, commentary on Genesis 25:8, sefaria.org).

“Thy people shall all be righteous, they shall inherit the land forever.”

– Isaiah 60:21, JPS 1917 Tanach

Seeking Meaning

“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.” – Genesis 23:1, The Complete Jewish Tanach

Commentary notes that there is a specific reason that the word “years” appears after each component number of the total number of years of her life. Inasmuch as each time frame of her life is to be understood in a certain manner, the following rendering is given: her childhood, young adulthood, and adulthood were all equally good (based on Rashi). Imagine an equanimity of identity, intention, and purpose spanning the entirety of a life – this was the life of Sarah.

This may be contrasted with the lives of many people in modernity. Common language, currently describes different formative years in a negative way, for example, the terrible twos, the rebellious adolescence, and the burdensome task of “finding oneself” given to the young adult. Also, consider the pressure of higher-level education, and earlier, placing the burden of choosing an area of interest upon the student, before he or she may be ready to decide upon a profession. In like manner that so many teenagers and young adults change their image, interests, and friendships; college-bound students and university freshman change their majors.

And what of the often turbulent years of the teenager, as well as the young adult, especially if one’s formative years were actually not so formative? “Train a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, JPS 1917 Tanach). There is a continuum, expressed by Erikson, between “identity cohesion and role confusion,” especially during adolescence; yet, a cohesive identity may be formed as the result of parental instruction and role modeling. Additionally, each child may be brought up in accordance with his or her own personality, and learning style. This is not a task that can simply be relegated to the teachers where the child attends school.

Unless an individual embarks upon a steady path, replete with a moral component, then how can one navigate the vicissitudes of life? Too often, the formula of permitting the youth to experience life for themselves, without providing any clear guideposts, is the one taken by parents who have been influenced by the permissiveness of societal norms. Yet, there is still something to say for those throughout the world who are brought up within a more traditional framework. This would include those within cultures that embrace traditional morality, as well as those that uphold religious values.

The monotheism embraced by both Abraham and Sarah served as a rallying cry for their newfound beliefs, whereof each was committed to a high degree of sanctity in their lives, despite the idolatry and diminished moral sphere of the surrounding peoples of that time. Eventually, the three Abrahamic faiths influenced the world in a manner, whereby many people were called to a higher standard.

Comparatively speaking, as the standard of the world seems to decline in more recent times, it is even more important to plan a trajectory for our own lives, those of our children, and the future of society, even in the midst of societal breakdowns. We need a return to an unadulterated life of stability, purposeful intent, and commitment; instead of the rampant nihilism, experimenting, and seeking of entertainment, so common in modern society. May the pure, devoted, and moral life of Sarah serve as an example for us to seek meaning and the utmost good for our lives.

“Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

– Proverbs 29:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

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.

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).