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).

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.

Shavuot 5781

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.

Omer: Day 49 Culmination

Malchut shebbe Malchut: Kingship within Kingship

Today’s middot (character traits) are malchut shebbe malchut (autonomy within sovereignty). This may be compared to the goal of self-actualization as found within a psychological framework. Finding a meaningful path to pursue in life will lead to personal fulfillment; in other words, the culmination of the soul’s mission in life. Under G-d’s directive, through His hasgacha peratis (divine guidance) that is placed upon us all, we are guided to what will steer us in the right direction.

In the Biblical sense, Solomon simplifies the essence, the underlying goal, to focus on, namely, “the sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere G-d, and observe His commandments; for this applies to all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, JPS 1985 Tanach). By staying on course, within the framework of G-d’s commandments, including all of the guidance that stems from them, one’s potential as an individual may be fully garnered, along the way towards the Kingdom.

The path is a unified one, inclusive of the soul in relationship to G-d. Moreover, to think in terms of self actualization, as well as directing ourselves to be in accordance with G-d’s expectations of us, is not incongruent. Although, in the strictest psychological sense, Maslow may have intended self actualization an expression of inner potential; within the light of a divine plan, it is ultimately through the negation of self to a higher cause, that the self may realize its fullest potential within G-d.

On Shavuot (the fiftieth day), the culmination of the forty-nine day journey through self renewal, by way of examining our character, reaches its goal. As the L-RD said to Moses, “when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve G-d upon this mountain” (Exodus 3:12, JPS 1917 Tanach). We receive the Torah anew, in the very present moment of our lives. H’Shem willing, the refinement of our soul over the past seven weeks has brought us closer to the fulfillment of peace and wholeness in our lives.

“The path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”

– Proverbs 4:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

Omer: Day 48 – Being Oneself

Yesod shebbe Malchut: Foundation within Kingship

In regard to yesod, a strong foundational belief system is necessary in order to maintain a sense of autonomy (malchut). Without reference points, in regard to one’s identity, it would be too easy to be swayed by this, that or the other opinion, trend, or viewpoint. A tenacious adherence to a set of values and beliefs, as well as an overall conception of oneself will be a fence around an individual’s autonomy.

There is a teaching from Zusha, who taught that when he gets to Shomayim (Heaven), he isn’t going to be asked why he wasn’t like Moses. He will be asked why he wasn’t like Zusha (himself). Everyone is an individual, who will best relate to truth in the manner that G-d will show to him or her. Therefore, the spiritual achievements, past education, or knowledge of others should only inspire us. For G-d designates unto each and every individual, according to his own capacity.

A foundational belief and practice is really integral to the overall spiritual health of every human being; otherwise, we could potentially drown, so to speak, in a sea of nihilism, where values ultimately do not matter, and life has no directive towards an ultimate purpose. G-d forbid. Therefore, to cling to the truth through deveykus (attachment) is paramount not only to connect to G-d, but to also remain steadfast on the derech (path) of life.

note: this was recorded and posted before Shabbat.

Omer: Day 47 – Humble Mountain

Hod shebbe Malchus: Splendor Within Kingship

Hod, may also be reckoned as “humility.” Humility is a necessary ingredient of character, inasmuch that any attempt to raise oneself above a modest estimation of one’s abilities should be placed in check by a fair analysis of oneself. Lowliness of spirit is a deterrent against pride. Morever, showing deference to others helps to foster a sense of humility.

Yet, ultimate deference should be shown to G-d, through obeisance of His commandments, as well as an acknowledgment of His greater wisdom (Isaiah 55:8-9). The middah (character trait) of hod is also reckoned as “splendor.” This type of splendor is the resultant state of humbling ourselves before G-d. “Before honor goeth humility” (Proverbs 15:33). When we bow to G-d in our heart, He will bestow his shefa (divine flow) upon us. 

B’nei Yisrael received the Torah at Sinai. Why was Mt. Sinai chosen from all of the other mountains? Because Sinai was not the highest of mountains; this teaches us the importance of humility. Only when we humble ourselves before G-d in full acknowledgment of our own limitations, may we receive the Torah anew within the quietude of our hearts.

“The reward of humility is fear of the L-RD” (Proverbs 22:4, JPS 1917 Tanach). When we humble ourselves, we can begin to appreciate our relationship to the L-RD, acknowledging Him with awe, reverence and respect. His sovereignty over our lives becomes easier to accept, when we recognize that we are limited beings, without all of the answers in life.

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.