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.

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).

erev Shabbos reflection: Misplaced L’Chayim

As Shabbos approaches, I am fretting. It’s still within the grace period, before lighting the candles; so, it’s not like I’m committing a terrible aveirah (sin) by writing these words for a potential blogpost. It is such in life that hindsight is golden, and upon discerning the nature of a festive meal outside, underneath a sukkah, for lunch on the Second Day of Sukkot (Wednesday), I am concerned that I went above and beyond what I should have permitted for myself, in disregard of many Covid safety protocols that I had established for myself.

And, now, a simple stye in the eye is causing me to wonder whether this is the result of contracting the dreaded coronavirus. It would serve me right, if that were the case; because even my Yiddishkeit standards faltered at the table, for example, when I took part in a l’chayim, for no particular reason. That is not the way of a sincere chassidishe l’chayim. Guilt, regret, and mild worry, are some of the negative feelings that I now harbor as sunset approaches. L’chayim, indeed.

This kind of joy is not worth the trouble that it will bring, as is referred to in psalms, that only uz (then), that is when Israel is fully out of galus, should joy be overflowing (see Psalm 126). Therefore, a vain l’chayim, will only bring empty joy. For those wondering what I am talking about, drinking a l’chayim (a bisel of schnapps) should only be in respect to giving a brief dvar on Torah, for the aliyah of a departed soul, a healing (go figure on this one), or a simcha (good news). Not, simply drinking a l’chayim in order to drink a l’chayim. Shabbat shalom.

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

Reflections: Yom Kippur 5782

Staying Aloof During the Neilah Service

Trying to make the best of the moments, in retrospect, that was my intent while perusing the prayers in English, and remaining focused on the words, while the Hebrew was being sung, mostly by the Rabbi and chazan (cantor). So, on the one hand, the tunes are potent with emotion; on the other hand, even if I know the song, I prefer to read the English, since I can only pronounce the Hebrew, without knowing the meaning.

Only the jokes were distracting to me; even as I recognize their told for the bulk of the congregation, who need to be kept entertained. Yet, for anyone like myself, who is there in all sincerity, the jokes are irrelevant. Moreover, on Yom Kippur, especially during the part of the service, before the final al chet (penitent prayers), jokes seem entirely contradictory to the type of mind-set required at that point.

However, I somehow managed to stay aloof, in my own space, and continue to foster some sense of kavannah (intention) that reflected the appropriate mood. This was rewarding – thank G-d, because in the past I would only get frustrated. Yet, there are always tradeoffs in life; so, I decided to make the best of the situation, despite the style of service not meeting my selfish demands.

L’shannah tovah. Next year in Jerusalem.

Torah insight: Shoftim 5781

Deuteronomy 18:1

“The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel.”

Their presence was required at the Temple, even according to a designated rotation of shifts; moreover, they were scattered amongst the territories of the tribes, in order to attend to the spiritual needs of the entire people. Thus, in acknowledgment of their devotion to H’Shem, Maimonides speaks of the optional commitment that we may take upon ourselves, to become like unto “spiritual Levites.”

Va’etchanan 5781

parashas Va’etchanan 5781

“Ye that did cleave unto the L-RD your G-d are alive every one of you this day.”

 – Deuteronomy 4:4, JPS 1917 Tanach

During Moshe’s speech that lasted thirty-seven days, he prepared B’nei Yisrael to enter the Promised Land.  He cautioned them, admonished them, and reminded them in a tactful way of previous sins.  Rather than naming the sins, he would mention the place where the transgressions occurred.

One such instance that appears a little more direct is when he mentions the matter of Baal-peor, whereof H’Shem punished “all the men that followed the Baal of Peor [the deity of the Midianites]” (Deuteronomy 4:3).  He further mentions that those who cleaved to H’Shem, rather than follow the deity, “are alive every one of you this day” (Deuteronomy 4:4, JPS 1917 Tanach).

This juxtaposition makes it clear that those who did not transgress through idolatry and licentiousness were preserved by H’Shem because they “cleaved” to Him.  The Hebrew word used for “cleave,” in this instance, is “deveykut.”  The word connotes a clinging to H’Shem in the sense of one who is dependent on Him for his sense of well-being.

Deveykut is necessary for hitbodedut (Jewish meditation).  Within the practice of hitbodedut, one pours out his heart to H’Shem, hoping for an answer to all of his prayers.  Yet, in complete deveykut, one lives his life in constant acknowledgement of the L-RD.  Furthermore, he is able to speak to H’Shem from within in his heart in the quiet moments of the day. May we avoid the secular deities of modern society, so that we can cleave to the L-RD in our own lives.

shabbos reflection: Blessings Abound

This evening begins the month of Av, as well as the last nine intensive days of the three week period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, leading up to the ninth of Av – the day when both Temples were destroyed about six hundred years apart from each other in history. The Rafael fire brought much consternation to the local residents of the many communities in Northern Arizona; and, seemed like a reminder to me of the tragic nature of the breach of the walls of Jerusalem, and its subsequent demise by fire about 1,900 years ago. As a result, even though the state of Israel has been reborn (see Isaiah 66:8), we are still in exile until the time that the third Temple is built. May that day arrive soon.

As erev Shabbos draws near, I take stock for the blessings in this life: tonight begins Rosh Chodesh. So, the coincidence of Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh, simply means that there are extra blessings derived from the day. By way of explanation, although we already receive an extra portion of shefa (divine flow) on Shabbos in and of itself, Rosh Chodesh also brings additional shefa. Traditionally, it is actually explained that each individual receives an “extra soul” on Shabbos. Otherwise, figuratively speaking, as symbolic of a boost in spirit on the day. The neshama yetera is like an extra portion of the spiritual side of the soul, elevating one’s sense of ruchniyos (spirituality) on the day.

A more detailed explanation can be found elsewhere; what seems important to me, is the connection of one’s soul to the day, through prayer, study, and festive meals. A day to nourish the soul; for when the soul is edified, for example, by reading a book that has to do with higher aspirations, the body also benefits. This opportunity for a heightened spiritual experience should not be squandered. Rather, we should feel inspired to pursue spiritual activities on a day where we cease from work. The Shabbos connotes, as a day of rest, a slower pace, where we can appreciate the countless moments of our lives, as opposed to letting everything pass us by in a flurry of activity. The frenetic pace of the week is set aside, and we welcome the Shabbos in joy and expectation of the even Greater Shabbos, when we enter into Olam Haba (the World to Come).

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).