Wrapping Up The Holidays 5781: A Year Of Loss

Approaching candle-lighting time here in Jerusalem, it’s almost Shabbat and Shimini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (we celebrate both on one day here). First thing this morning, I awoke to learn than a former rabbinic student of mine had suddenly died. It was like being kicked in the stomach by a donkey.

Although it will “officially” be on Sunday, when it’s no longer chag here in Israel, in the galut Simchat Torah is Rabbi Shloime Twerski’s yahrzeit. He passed in 1981, 39 years, the majority of my lifetime, ago. I’ve grown used to the intense feeling of loss that starts to ramp up this time every year.

But there was no way I could prepare myself for this new loss.

And in many ways it seems so appropriate to this year, the Plague Year of Covid-19. This was a year where all Am Yisrael shared the loss of synagogues and, to a large degree,for many of us, even those living in the heart of Jerusalem, community for Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Here in Israel, in the midst of our second Corona Lockdown, those of us without our own Sukkah also missed out on the simple, subtle, intense pleasure of spending time, eating, drinking, entertaining, singing, sleeping in a Sukkah. Of course, this is following the year of no large family Seders for Pesach–those of us living alone, arranged our own, solo, Seder……

And so, bookended by loss, I’m left alone with God. That, however, is far from a bad thing. I must remind myself.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

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Sukkot 5781–A Unique Challenge

Here in Jerusalem, for example, we’re in the midst of an almost total civilian lockdown. Not only has the traditional Arba Minim Shuk, the various open markets where we can purchase our etrogim and  lulavim been prevented from opening, and not only are most synagogues closed or severely limited, public Sukkot are outlawed. Not only is it illegal to visit a Sukkah that’s not your own, inviting a non-immediate-family member is also illegal, bearing a 500 shekel,  currently about $150, fine!

Of course we can, on our own, pray the seasonal prayers, read the yearly Torah portions, and if we previously procured a lulav we can wave that and, if we have the possibility of our own Sukkah we can eat in it, but otherwise these days look to be pretty empty, especially of joy and happiness.

Most rabbinic leaders, even of the strictest haredi, ultra-orthodox, groups, have issued halachic proclamations to avoid Sukkot that aren’t you’re own, to not pass lulavim from person to person (technically, the lulav is supposed to be owned by the person waving it, so it’s customary to “give away” yours to someone who, for whatever reason, lacks their own).

In this situation, one actually fulfills the mitzva by not fulfilling it.

“Sacrifice” is a terrible translation for the word and concept Karbon, which are the offerings we would make in the Temple, daily, and on special days. Interestingly, Sukkot is the holiday with more Karbanot, more sacrifices (that word actually does convey the concept I want to use in this instance) than any other period. There are a number of traditional reasons discussed for this, but none of these traditional explanations of Torah and halacha are specifically based in our current situation of pandemic, lockdown, isolation and transforming mitzvot from their observance to refaining from fulfilling them.

Stretching and bridging two separate languages, perhaps we still can learn that this year, and hopefully it will be confined to this year and that a vaccine and other effective treatments will soon be found, we offer up our usual joy and happiness of our traditional mitzvot of Lulav and Sukkah with the aware intention of sacrifice, perhaps not understanding why, but accepting that at this time this is what we’re called to do.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.

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Love, Respect, Responsibility–Yom Kippur תשפ”א/2021

Much of my Torah study focus these past years has been Zohar. One of its major themes describes (in great detail and from almost unlimited perspectives) how The Creator, through an incredibly complex process, reduced and reconfigured the Infinite Light, the unimaginable Pure Energy, in a way to first make a space for our world, to then provide it with everything it needs and also manages it so we, fragile humans and other life forms here on earth, are not overwhelmed with too much energy.

While contemplating this process we can’t help but ask why He would go to so much effort. Being All-Powerful, He could have chosen to bring our world into being with, in manner of speaking, a mere finger-snap. This is actually a secondary question since the most obvious question is why God bothered to create the world, with Man in his position “at the top of the foodchain” at all. God, lacking nothing, certainly didn’t need a plaything.

Ramchal, in his basic introduction to how the world works and what it really is, Derech Hashem, The Way Of God, simply states that God’s intention is to bestow His good to another (to a being other than Himself) (א, א, 1). Realizing that the absolutely highest Good He can bestow is Himself. And while we can’t really understand, let alone begin to describe His Essence, we do know that it includes אור אין סוף, Or Ein Sof, infinite energy.

Working with the principle, Sof Maase b’Machshava Techila, סוף מעשה במחשבה תכילה that the ultimate goal is the very first thing conceived, from the very beginning, Creation was done with Man’s Being in mind. Everything that was done, that needed to be done, to create a livable, nurturing environment so that Man can then earn his ultimate reward (God’s Goodness), was planned and executed from the very first step.

One thing that stands out to me is the Infinite Love that motivates the entire process. Without this love, or with lesser love, why go to all this trouble? Likewise, why make our living so filled with challenges which often (usually?) so overwhelm us, that force us to our very limits to merely survive, let alone to overcome?

The optimal mechanism The Creator gives man to experience the Ultimate Good is the opportunity to, as much as possible, resemble God, even to the point of not only being enabled to create, but also to look beyond ourselves and to use our creativity to benefit not only our own selfish desires, but the needs and desires of others. The very act of creating, on every level and in every realm of endeavor,be it artistic, design, communication, science (including medical research, in order for this essay to be timely…..) is one of the most joyous in which Man can participate. Man’s ultimate act of creation, creating a new human being, is based on the very definition of pleasure. We have been created, designed from the very beginning, to be creators.

As Jews, we believe in an active and present God. Merely to acknowledge Him as The Creator is not enough because the very idea that He threw together the ingredients of life and then took off for “Parts Unknown”, the “Clockmaker” thesis paints God as malign and negligent. While not falling off the cliff on the opposite side and viewing God as manipulating the world minute-by-minute, we do see Him overseeing, quietly (silently?) advising, always involved. It’s a delicate balance to emerge to Create and then to partially withdraw in order to allow us the most independence and responsibiity we, as humans, are able to shoulder in order to continuously maximize our access to Him as the Ultimate Good we’re able to experience. Not only is a balance like that, at least from our point of view (remember that God is All-Capable and All-Powerful) almost impossible to conceive, let alone perform, it is also exactly within our abilities. God maintains His responsibility for us the creatures He created.

Thus, we’re not merely empowered and enjoined to create, but we’re also obligated to to act responsibility. In Bereshit (Genesis 18) charges man l’avdah u’lashomrah, to work and protect the earth, especially the delicately balanced mechanism by which we receive sustenance in exchange for our responsibility. Our “job”(s) in the world are constant and constantly changing as conditions evolve and change.

And this brings me to Yom Kippur תשפא/2020, one of the strangest and most challenging New Years any humans have experienced. Not only are we besieged, world-wide, which the pandemic plague of Covid-19, the earth itself seems on fire with record high temperatures over much of the globe. There have been massive fires, in the western United States as well as in New England, Scandinavia, Brasil, Central Africa, Siberia, much of Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and Central America (all of which, remember, are also experiencing the Covid Pandemic!). There have recently been devastating  earthquakes from Alaska, Russia, Mexico, New Zealand and more as well as unusually high volcano occurrences. One could be forgiven for speculating that, maybe God Himself is less-than-pleased with our stewardship.

Locally, here in Israel, even in the strictest lockdown against the corona virus, I see barely over 50% of the people I cross on the streets properly wearing masks or keep reasonable distance from other people. When those of us who have tried to comply with the restrictions are starving for human touch, I see large gangs of people, unmasked, or course, shouting and hugging their ways down the street, either unaware or merely callous to the health risk they not only expose themselves to, but to everyone else on the streets……

Seeing these minimum requirements flaunted once the first lockdown of the first wave (when we here in Israel were the examples to the world of how to stand together to fight this plague) was relaxed, it’s certainly obvious to me why we’re in our pressent lockdown.

I daily see not only selfishness, but a complete lack of feeling responsible not only for others but for themselves. Underlying this irresponsibility is a glaring lack of love, not only for others, but even for oneselves. While many individuals continue exemplary behavior, as a nation we’ve dropped the ball. Whether from exhaustion, from contempt for each other and contempt towards The Creator, we now arrive at Yom Kippur.

The grand theme of these ten days since Rosh Hashana is Tshuvah, returning. With this year being unable to observe this day as we’re accustomed, no support of a kehilla, community, no heartfelt community prayer and song, no intimately sharing each other’s efforts to make this day one of our “repentance” being accepted On High, it seems that one of our very last and meager tools and consolations have been taken from us.

On the other hand, a new opportunity opens for us. Painful as it is, removing the socializing over this chag, doing without the support of group prayer and group supplication and group singing, also frees us from the distraction of the very same things. More than any time in recent memory, we can choose either dispair or we can sieze the opportunity to really focus our own, individual efforts at prayer, meditation, love for the good of all. This is an opportunity and an invitation to really be and do all we can, to model ourselves on The Creator in this unique moment, to work for the common good and not for our individual benefit.

And, perhaps if we succeed in teaching ourselves how to do that, all this pain will have been, somehow, worth it. Here is our opportunity to really try to bring Good to all those around us, relying that they, focused the same way, include our goods even while ignoring their own.

This is how we can turn a disaster into a win-win for all manking.

G’mar Chatima Tova, may we all our shining futures be assured, for ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation and for all humanity.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, Thus may it be His Will.

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Goodbye 5780/2020

No one alive has ever had a year quite like this past one. To be sure, there remain a diminishing number, among our people, who survived the unimaginable horrors of the Shoah, and elsewhere in the world those who survived Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and more recently ISIS, Boko Haram as well today’s dissidents in Iran and other similar states, and other localized evils. However, no one alive today has experienced a full-blown world wide disaster such as the current covid pandemic. No one is exempt, no one is immune, there are no “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards and the virus has struck rich and poor, privileged and challenged, righteous and evil, young and old, healthy and sickly. With justified fury we’ll witness the most arrogant flaunters of communal/human responsibility get off scot-free and challenging all our beliefs in righteousness and karma, we’ll see the most saintly and giving, succumbing to disease and carried off in pain.

Of course, I have yet mentioned the climatic and other disasters, the seemingly unending heat, the fires covering roughly half the world, hurricanes, earthquakes and more. Into this week, the formerly pristine Pacific Northwest has endured the worst air pollution in the world due to raging forest and brush fires in California, Oregon and Eastern Washington (previous years also in British Columbia), dwarfing the regularly unbreathable air in Beijing or Delhi, Mexico City or Los Angeles. (A good many of these fires are arson, compounding absolute evil intent onto the evil of neglect and forest exploitation.)

We are leaving a year where none of our presumptions have worked, and still in the throes of this virus, and we have no idea if we’re nearing the end or if it’s just gathering momentum; we’re looking into the new year without much of an anchor of security. Sitting in shul, half-asleep, is not an available option this year, nor is crying our hearts out to our Creator in the midst of communal prayer since, for the most part, through much of the world, our synagogues are closed up. 

There’s no need for shyness since no one will overhear our prayers or our confessions. No one will be able to betray our deepest shames, so, perhaps for the first time, we can face our portions of responsibility, since every non-perfect human action contributes to these and many more problems.

Let me say that I detest non-committal, lukewarm, new-age spirituality, and have no patience with phrases/concepts like “missing the mark”, “not doing my best” and the like. If you indeed, merely “missed the mark” or didn’t do your utmost, please take a seat with the Tzaddim Gamorim, the completely righteous, and let the rest of us get on with our task of trying to repair (the root concept of the too-popular word tikkun as in tikkun olam, which means much more than adopting politically correct stances) the damage we and others have done this time around the sun.

We begin, based on the principles of Rambam’s Hilchot Tsuvah, Laws of Returning, by admitting our sins first to ourselves, taking full responsibility not just for the deed itself, but for the damage it caused. We might as well drill into our deepest wells of secret guilt, since nothing is hidden from The Holy One, and in this year of isolation, there’s no one nearby to embarrass us. Rather, we can embrace the embarrassment, begin with our full blushing to burn these sins from our souls (as we learn in the Introduction to Tikkunei HaZohar, 5b) (Although this internal process later became distorted into non-Jewish ideas of hellfire and eternal damnation, remember that it is a very precious and effective way to be able to even navigate a lifetime’s damage in order to begin to correct and repair it. It’s something to embrace (but definitely not to obsess over)–once you’ve done this work, burned away this level through regret and embarrassment, you need to move on to actually and matierally fixing things as best you can and not to perversely wallow in “delicious guilt”.)

One need next make public amends. This isn’t limited to asking forgiveness from the one(s) you harmed–how easy it would be if that were it….), but also to assess the damage, to do what you can physically, emotionally and also financially (usualy indirectly through Tzdaka, which has the additional value of not only contributing to the relief of the original and generated damage, but also introducing a spirit of selfless giving into the situation).

Hopefully, one has learned the lesson and will know to take another path, make another choice, if faced with a similar situation and temptation in the future. Continuing the acknowledgement process, one needs to resolve, out loud, to not sin again. But we only know if the process was successful if, when faced with the same choices, one resists the path that caused so much pain and damage. Likely, one will only partially succeed here, and will need to re-enter the process next year and the next, but not as a beginner with a full load of sin, but, hopefully, as one who is in the process of mastering the techniques of Tshuvah.

While none of this really sounds so easy, it’s a lot easier in a situation where we don’t feel under the public microscope. Under the Divine Microscope, perhaps is a totally different thing since among the dominant qualities of God that we do know about is Rachamim and Chesed, Mercy and Love. God, unlike man who, at least to a small part for the most virtuous of us, who feels at least a little competitive advantage when someone else fails, receives only happiness, nachas, nachat ruach, a restful satisfaction and happiness that should be familiar to all of us who have been blessed to be parents when we see our children succeed.

Of course, none of us is going to “hit one-thousand”, in baseball terms, but to the degree that we can, let’s leave the wrecks of 5780/2020 behind without embarrassment over being observed at our process, without the usual pleasant distractions of friends and family and communal prayer and feasting. 

Hopefully we won’t have this kind of opportunity next year.

Ken yehi Ratzon, May it be his will.

Ketiva v’Chatima Tova, may everyone be written and sealed only for good.

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One Thought, Looking Forward to Rosh Hashana 5781

The Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches of one who saves a life that he is as if he saved an entire world, Olam Maleh, עולם מלא. Although halachically, this leaves many questions open, it does make the point that each of us comprises the entirety of a world.

Yeshiyahu, Isaiah, 6:3, states that God fills the entire world, מלא כל הארץ, with His Presence (often translated as His Glory). Note the similarity (albeit not exact) in language.

Each of us, an Olam (or Eretz) Maleh, an entire and complete world, has the capacity of being completely filled with God’s Presence. A very Chassidic (based on Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, aka The Kotzker) sort of qualification is called for here, if we let Him in.

Our “normal” operating mode has us usually filled with distractions, flitting from idea to idea, from deadline to deadline, from crisis to crisis, from the needs of one to the needs of the next in line (and perhaps that only when we’re at our “optimal” efficiency and organization. We’re so conditioned to this constant motion that even when we’re in a situation where we can sit quietly and let our mind settle we continue, out of habit, to bounce all over the place.

But what better time and place than Rosh HaShana, an entire day with little else to do but to meditate upon God’s Majesty, where the theme of they day is to “Coronate The Creator”, with special liturgy based on this idea, to quietly remove all the distractions and to, truly, let our entire beings be filled with the actual Presence (kavod, the word selected by Isaiah, is the same word we use in, say physics for gravity (koach ha-kavod, the power of kavod) of The Creator.

Rather than be overwhelmed by wave after wave of words, most of which even those of us fluent in Hebrew don’t really understand, worrying about catching up to the arbitrary page the Chazzan is at right now, perhaps let yourself be lulled by the melodies and music, the idea (especially this year when many of us will not be able to experience the actual embrace of a loving community) and try to fill our infinite capacity as humans with the appreciation of the Infinite Being of Holy, Entirely Other, Sacred Creator.

May we all merit many future years, vibrating at our highest capacity and awareness. Tizku l’Shanot Rabot.

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Fasting (or not) In The Time Of Plague

Unique among Jewish Special Days, Tisha B’av lacks any aspect of celebration. Nonetheless, it is a day which many of us, especially those of us living today in Israel, feel a strong compulsion to at least acknowledge. Furthermore, in our day, especially those of us blessed to live in a thriving, metropolitan, international, modern or even futuristic Jerusalem, no longer a city abandoned and bereft, but home to a greater number of people, including a greater number of Jew, and while not all necessarily fall somewhere on an “observance” spectrum, still home to more mitva-observing, Torah-studying, and many at a higher intellectual (at least) level than ever before, how do I mourn something that’s in the very process of rebirthing?

Of course, I must admit, Jerusalem is not yet fully rebuilt. Most conspicuous is the absence of Bayit Shlishi, a standing, functioning (whatever that might mean (will it necessarily include a full (or any) program of Karbanot, ritual animal sacrifice?)) Bet HaMikdash, a Holy Temple. Even without a specifically Jewish Temple, is there any such thing as a Bet Tefilla l’Kol HaAmim, a House of Prayer for All Nations, either here in Jerusalem or anywhere in the world? The job of rebuilding Jerusalem, either as the first concrete step or the final crowning of partering with The Eternal to perfect His/our  world, indeed, remans far from complete. There is that which to mourn, that which yet to pray for and, most importantly, to work for. (Perhaps a high priority in our prayers should be for God’s help in learning just what we need to do, to “work on”. It often seems to me that we desperately need a detailed blueprint already!) Tisha b’Av is a far way from being obsolete and, thus, a candidate for being cancelled.

This opens a larger question, one I’ll continue to explore and write about. If there are those of us who are unable, but still obligated in the Mitzvot of Tisha B’Av, what about those for whom these ancient commandments no longer work? Fasting, refraining from washing, leather shoes, sexual relations, relieving with oils skin dried and painful in the seasonal heat, having refrained from eating meat for nine days, listening to music for twenty-one, shaving or getting one’s hair cut, buying new clothes, what if none of that focuses someone’s mind and heart on their own shortcomings contributing to the world of trouble we inhabit. Grouchy and irritable, and refraining from the distraction of entertainment, are we any closer to loving our fellow Jew, not to mention loving, or even tolerating, our fellow human, especially when they are being themselves, i.e. not being ourselves or who we might want them to be. In the face of such radical and wide-spread disconnect between the rules of this span of time, the failures still operating in this world and any reasonable attempts we might make to fix the mess, how can we find the “Connect”? Will the sad, but arguably most beautiful of the liturgic year melody of Eicha, Lamentations, chanted this night and tomorrow, move us to better our attitudes or behavior, inspire us to be less selfish, more loving, less defensive, more open?

And mirroring these issues, how do we proceed with our entire halachic system during the rest of the year? Is it better to persist because we’ve always persisted? Perhaps that’s the very argument for innovation–it obviously (?) hasn’t worked (yet). Is it a matter of just needing an unknown number of more repetitions in order to achieve “critical mass” or is it a matter of our just not getting the message of the negative feedback? Are there rabbis or other Torah-based authorities who can guide us, who don’t have their own vested interests (power they want to maintain/power they want to wrest away from those who currently have power, dreamers/realists, mystics/engineers)?

The partial rebuilding of Jerusalem in our day, the establishment of a sovereign Jewish nation on at least part of our traditional homeland, these seem to indicate that our world is far from static. That change is occuring or that “Change is Going to Come”. The question is far more profound than how are we going to remain engaged and committed at Jews of the future, but how we fulfill our obligation, to bear witness to God’s active presence in the Universe.

These unanswered questions, while not yet answered, have, Baruch Hashem, finally, at least, been asked.

Without quite knowing how, let us join together to actively bring and increase Ahavat Chinam, Limitless Unselfish Love into our world.

For those who are fasting, Tzom Kal, may it be any easy fast. For all of us, fasting or not, may it be a Strong Nine.

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Slowly With All Deliberate Speed

I really thought we had a chance. I really did.

Although no one would ever hope for a pandemic plague, once it’s here, we should see what positive changes it will either force or allow us to examine. The radical adjustments we’ve had to make could have facilitated some much needed change, an evolution to our Ancient Tradition which many suspect just might be stuck a couple hundred years in the past. But, as we seem to be over the worst of at least the first wave here in Israel, what I see, instead, is a rapid, almost blind, snap-back to comfortable and familiar habits of rote prayer. Perhaps a great opportunity has been wasted.

But it’s not only that we might have missed an opportunity, which might or not have actually been there. No, perhaps we closed our eyes and heart to God’s not-so-gentle push to reexamine our relationship with Him.

I’d never assert anything so blindly ethno-centric as you might hear in the frum world, asserting  everything that occurs anywhere is primarily a message from God to the Jewish People. But presuming a Creator Who is multi-task capable (certainly  a product of His omniscience) whatever He is about in our world certainly has the bandwidth to include messages for the Jewish People. I have no idea, and would never presume to say I know the Divine Intention of the CoronaVirus plague we’ve been facing, but I am certain that just like everything else that occurs in this world that effects me, I’m called upon to find and act on the very best next step(s) to take.

So, I’m confident that the disruptions that have happened to traditional Jewish Communal Life each contained questions for us both communally and individually. It was not random that, worldwide, Jews of all religious stripe and fervor were prevented from such basic observances as communal prayer, davening  with a minyan and, thus, mourners were prevented from saying Kaddish. Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick, Lavayat HaMet, attending funerals and comforting mourners. Torah Study, Limmud Torah, itself, at least within the typical and accustomed Yeshiva/Bet Midrash system, sitting at long tables across from your chavruta, study partner, and struggling, together, to tease out ever deeper meanings and messages which have been embedded in ancient words. We were forced, for a short time at least, to adapt.

Ashreinu, How happy and blessed we all are, that we now live in a world of remote digital communication and can speak with and learn together with and, in many circles, even pray with people who are not physically present in our immediate environment. What an opportunity to explore making Torah connections over a much wider field than ever imagined possible just thirty years ago.

Although I usually deny it vociferously, and would almost never admit it to anyone else, in some very deep ways I, also, am haredi, ultra-orthodox. I pray three times a day, using an ancient, traditional liturgy. I devote vast portions of my days studying Torah. I do all of this wearing modern (or, at least, not too out-of-date and unstylish) casual clothes. I do cover my head at most times, but with a knit kippa or, if it’s windy or sunny outside, either a straw or a porkpie (obviously not standard haredi wear) hat. And while at this particular point in my life I rarely attend synagogue, I am deeply vested in not just the abstract “welfare” of the greater Jewish world, but have a personal stake (as well as strong opinions) on how we, as a people, rooted in our shared and ancient past as well as our more recent histories, but also part of the world which is always marching into the future, fulfill our halachic (formal and legalistic ritual, prayer, communal and private obligations) as well as our minhagic, carry on the religous customs which define us as a people, much more than mere folks who share a “religion”.

As I mentioned, I rarely do go to synagogue or pray with a minyan. And often when I do find myself in that situation, I’m so disengaged from what I find to be rote practice, that I’ll often sit alone and “space-out” into my own meditations of God and His relationship with me, with the Jewish People, with all mankind (as well as mine with all of them). This isn’t because I disapprove nor because I see myself as a “special case”. In fact, most times I’d love to join in, but too often it just no longer works for me.

And as the years have passed, I find that I speak with more and more Jews, committed Jews like myself and even those more committed, who also find themselves on the outside looking in. And often, I’ve suspected that all those “on the inside” are, really, just as much on the outside as I am, albeit each in their own personal ways. For so many of us who are not trying to be crusaders or reformists, but merely trying to experience and then deepen our connections with The Creator and with our fellow Jews, much of “the old way” has just creaked to a stop, and no longer works.

Since, for the last number of years, most of my davening has been solo, and almost all of my teaching and most of my chavruta (study partner) Torah study has used online video conferencing tools, I wasn’t faced with suddenly having to give up everything I’ve known about being Jewish. But I have witnessed the honest pain and frustration of many who found themselves forced to do just that. Cast adrift, many of them reached out for the lifeboat of remote and distance learning and prayer. Some, not many but still some significant religious thinkers, supported and promoted the idea of people in separate households, instead of physically joining together in each other’s homes as has been our practice for millennia, holding Pesach Seders using software such as skype, facetime and zoom, even if that involved a minimal, but definite, use of electricity on a holiday when it is normally forbidden. Even some orthodox groups (albeit those on the “progressive” end of the orthodox spectrum, found ways to permit Zoom and Skype, even when initialized on Shabbat itself on days where, merely months ago, they would automatically, almost without thought, prohibit the use of everything electrical or electronic. In other words, a number of very creative alternatives were conceived, designed, distributed and utilized in very short order when they were needed.  More important than that, many people found these ways of praying and learning to be particularly satisfying, in many cases more satisfying that their previous, traditional practices.

So, I am disappointed by the immediate snap-back to the synagogue model, unchanged from where it left off. The sense of relief and absolute deliverance I read in so many articles praising “our beloved synagogues” totally depressed me.

I get it. There are many beautiful moments in our traditional liturgy, especially in its fullest form (which requires (this is an interesting question rarely asked, what we mean by “requiring”) a minyan for many prayers and praises). It’s a great feeling to no longer worry if we’re trying to just “get by”, when many of our best teachers never brought up the possibility that this social upheaval just might have uncovered new and better paths. Many of us have, quite recently, enjoyed very special davening experiences centered in parking lots, balconies and courtyards. (Just this past Shabbat, I was a guest at a friends house in Jerusalem. He has a walled front yard that has several stone water fountains. As the sun set, the outside temperature was perfect and the gurgling water just soft enough to hear the Shliach Tzibbur clearly over it. The sense of peace and relaxation was far beyond what I’ve experienced in a shul–at the same time, I should mention that when I spend Shabbat with another friend in Tzfat, rather that goit to shul or opening a siddur, I join him and another friend who have been doing this for more than 20 years, and take a meditative walk around the edges of the city, watching the sun disappear over the peaks of Har Meron, also a reliably special way to greet the Shabbat).

My point is that there a number of ways, all consistent with halacha and not violating any Shabbat prohibitions, which include the familiar synagogue service, but also includes other possibilities. Due to the health restrictions recently in place because of he Covid-19 pandemic, we were forced, even those who otherwise would never have experimented or deviated, to explore other paths to the same goal (Shabbat, that is). Even though I am in a phase where I rarely go to shul right now, I tried new options and found that some of them worked, powerfully, others not so much.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful (and it still can be), if a critical mass of teachers and authorities were to encourage Am Yisrael to expand our repertoire of davening techniques, ready to use them even when our old classic standard has returned. Of course, the traditional synagogue service is fine, and has many strong features which can help aborb each of us into our own, unique Shabbat experience each week, but so, perhaps, do these “newly revealed” experiments.

Thus, making a conscious choice each time we’re called upon (required or feel an inner calling) to relate to The Creator through what I like to call the Tefilla Channel, we will be called to begin with an authentic, and not merely formulaic, kavannah (inner intention, a “tuning up” of our “instrument”, as it were) to make us authentically, and not merely formulaic, prepared to daven.

Do I have an answer, a description of what our journey forward will or should look like? Of course I don’t, Baruch Hashem, because any simple prescriptive formula will be, almost by definition, wrong. There are an array of options I would like to see in place or, at least, within grasp.

Of course, I have nothing against a revival of the synagogue model which, for so many centuries provided us a context for tefilla b’tzibbur, community prayer. But I would also like to see individual or small (less than a minyan) groups also recognized and afforded the same honor and legitimacy. I would like it if our great community leaders, our gelolim in all areas of Jewish experience, in lamdut (formal learning), in devising and clarifying halacha as new needs and conditions appear, each requiring courage and originality and an acceptance that failure is part of trying, explore and then teach and write about their own experiences in these other, less-traditionally-accepted contexts.

I would like to see a celebration and not just a grudging intellectual acceptance that there are at least as many different ways to approach HaKadosh Baruch Hu as there are Neshamot and that all honest attempts and experiments, even those which lead to dead ends and other types of failure, done with the clear kavannah (intention) l’yached shem yud-heh l’vav-heh to join the sacred etherial with the material, the diving Masculine with the Feminine, the ineffable Infinite of Ein Sof with the essence of matter and Being in this world, the Holy Shechina, every honest attempt, successful or not, to attest that, indeed, Hashem Elkeinu Hashem Echad, that the inner equals the outer and that even”One and One and One is One” because The One is All, that we, Am Yisrael, the Jewish Nation, looking into the future, explore and exclaim without distraction our relationship, both as Am Yisrael and as part of humanity, with God, the Creator, Sustainer, the Source, Agent and Object of Love.

If we can come out the other side of this world tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic, we will have processed horror and confronted the challenge, and not merely taken a break, voluntary or not, from our mere habits. We will have maximized our opportunity.

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Completing Creation

In these moments before Shavuot, we are completing the seven weeks of Sefirat HaOmer, counting each day since our rescue from the slavery of Egypt to become full-fledged people, until our reaching the maturity to accept our charge and destiny, to bring knowledge of God’s Being into the world and to model with our own actions and behavior, as an inspiration and light to all peoples, of human potential fully realized.

This period of seven seven-day weeks is also the one time where even the least mystically-inclined of observant Jewry, originally lead and defined by the finest Lithuanian, halacha-focused, intellectually-refined, speak about the deep inner truths of Kaballah, especially the model of sefirotic energy defined and developed by the Arizal, the sixteenth century rabbi and mystic whose analyses and explanations unlock the Holy Zohar of the second century mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the greatest of the 24000 students of Rabbi Akiva, and the final one to have died in the great plague of 135 CE, on the thirty-third day of this Omer period, signalling then end of the semi-mourning practices which dominate this season.

While it used to be that only serious Kaballists would observe all the customs and meditations of this period, it has sparked new interest in the last half-century so that now most seriously observant Jews at least give lip-service to the seven-by-seven daily/weekly meditation aimed at refining the seven personality traits associated with the seven Sefirot, focii of Divine Energy, which, more deeply than the Chakra system of ancient Hinduism which has become popularized through yoga and other eastern meditation practices. Instead of a central map, confined to the spine, the seven sefirot have analogues in the physical body thus, Chesed/Loving kindness/Right Arm; Gevurah/Strength (Strict order)/Left Arm; Tiferet/Balance (combining Abundance with Structure)/Heart (also the spine); Netzach/Eternity (Victory, endurance)/Right Leg; Hod/Splendor (Glory)/Left Leg; Yesod/Connection, Foundation/Genitals; Malchut/Kingship, Consolidation/Feet.

You’ll notice that these seven Sephirot, which are described as the “lower” sephirot, is mapped out on the body beneath the head. The head, which directs our body’s action and behavior, is represented by the three upper Sephirot, Chochma/Right Brain, Bina/Left Brain and either Da’at/Speech (centered in the throat) (the Chabad system developed by Lubavitch Chassidut) or Keter/Crown, at the top of the head, sometimes representing the entire head. In other words, the man’s intellectual faculties (with the “lower seven” representing either just the physical or the emotional and then the physical). (See https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/276672/jewish/Daily-Spiritual-Guide.htm for a brief, but accurate guide to this practice).

Shavuot, the fiftieth day of this count, transcending forty-nine, is the festival that celebrates receiving Torah at Sinai. Consistent to the configuration we’ve just discussed, Torah represents the 50th Gate of Wisdom (one more gate that the 49 Gates of Tumah, Corruption, we almost reached as slaves in Egypt), the paradigm of Intellect. As such, on the Sefirotic model, having refined the body, the physical as much as we were able to achieve this time around (remember, the Jewish year, and thus all of the festivals and rituals are cyclic or, perhaps better, an upward spiral, allowing and encouraging growth and depth from year to year). So, having completed reinforcing and refining our physical selves, we’re now prepared to support the head.

Since this holiday is also traditionally identified as the birthday of King David, the paradigm of King/Melech (Malchut). And since only a King is adorned with a Crown/Keter, we can follow the previous meditation of the seven lower Sefirot of the Omer period with an even deeper meditation on Keter.

Keter is described in the Zohar (Idra Zuta (Ha’Azinu) and in subsequent Kaballah texts as the Godhead, as the height we’re not really capable of observing, comprehending or understanding even a little. Often it’s described as a system of three spheres or skulls, each one encircling the lower, and the descriptions of each individual head is often applied to the entirety of Keter. Of these, the highest is Reishe d’lo Ityada, the Head of which nothing is known. Indeed, it’s inscrutability extends to itself in that we say it even lacks self-awareness. This is largely because it is comprised of almost pure energy that hasn’t yet precipitated even a little. In other words, these is basically no materiality whatsoever to be observed or measured or to interact with.

We talk of Ein Sof, The Infinite. Literally, Without End (or boundary or edge). We see it as the purest of pure light. So bright that it appears to be black because of its intense whiteness! We also apply Ein Sof as the essence, as much as one can conceive or or talk about God In Himself, because one of the very few positive statements we can make about God is actually the negative statement, that He has no boundaries whatsoever.

It seems the utmost of chutzpah to even consider that on this day, Shavuot, we contemplate Ein Sof. But, taking a step back, that’s exactly what this festival is about. It’s about us Finite Beings, being fully entrusted with the Ein Sof of Torah, which is, ultimately, our hightest contemplation and meditation on God Himself.

So, it stands to reason that we only have our chance, and the smallest chance it is, to face this deepest essence of The Holy One once we have thougtfully and methodically cleansed and refined our lower selves, our Seven Sefirot of the Body and Emotions, as we are just now completing with our Omer Counting practice of the last seven weeks, that we can turn to examining and exploring our very own experience of Keter, which we access through the Holy Torah we receive on this day.

Tizku l’Shanim Tovot, my we all merit years filled with only good.

Chag Shavuot Sameach.

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Yom Yerushalayim 2020

Yom Yerushalayim, for many years, has been very bittersweet for me. That was the day in 1989 I left Israel with my family, with just a little hope left that we’d return in just a couple years. As I’d pass it each of 26 times in Galut, it seemed to rub my nose in the new reality that I no longer really had any place or special relationship with Jerusalem.
This evening begins my fourth celebrating it here again. Each time it begins, I’m filled with the sense of having been given a second chance.
Last week also saw Pesach Sheni, a “second” Pesach. Accommodations were made if someone was unable (sickness or too far away, etc.) to fill their obligation to visit the Temple in Jerusalem three times each year, (with Pesach which included the unique Karbon Pesach, the Pesach sacrifice, each family would offer). they could come exactly one month later and celebrate that day just as if it were “normal” Pesach. In many ways, Pesach was the most important family celebration of the year, so missing it would have been a big deal. Thus, those who missed out their first opportunity would find, built into the system, a second chance.
As I’ve gotten older, I find that I’ve become a lot less demanding, both of people in my life, as well as on myself. This is the day I remind myself that no matter how badly I might screw things up, and each of us does that from time to time, nothing is irredeemable. We might not be able to go back in time and change things but whatever actual opportunity(ies) we missed, there is always a way to make amends, to repair things, to continue on our various lives’ works. As long as we can fill our lungs with breath, we can fill our hearts and our lives and our surroundings with light.
Am Yisrael Chai!

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Distinguishing Between Good And Evil: Hakaret HaTov

Hodu L’ashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo. Give thanks to God because He is Good, His Love Persists Forever (Tehillim 136).

One of the very few things we, with our limited minds and perceptions, can say about The Creator and His Purpose in Creation is that it is to bestow from His Goodness to one other than Himself. (Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Ramchal), Derech Hashem The Way Of God 1:1).

The unavoidable inference this generates is that everything is good, with those things which might appear evil exist only in the service of creating and revealing the good. Rather than some sort of Pollyana-ish sentimentality, this is actually the profoundest and most difficult concept to understand. But not only is it difficult to understand, it’s almost impossible for us, with our human eyes, living in an environment custom-created for our humanness, to even perceive.

The way you and I and everyone else usually experiences the world is that it is filled with challenges, disappointments, pain, abandonments. That, of course, is how we choose to read the moments which fill our lives. Living this way, we abandon our free will, our personal philosophies, our spiritual/moral and religious training to a sense of helplessness, victimhood and anarchy. Even happy events, moments of love, deep insights have surrendered their inherent positive qualities and take on the color of the fleeting moment. But not only do we not need to acquiesce, we’re refusing to accept the true nature of the universe in the attempt to be “neutral”, as if neutrality is the highest human aspiration.

The Gemara tells of Nachum Ish Gamzu, Nachum, the man of “Also this”….is good. Dismissed, perhaps, by modern scholars and apologists, Nachum was the teacher, the Rebbe of no less than Rabbi Akiva. Best known for his insight that the word Et, את, which really has no translated meaning, always implies the inclusion of something otherwise not mentioned. In other words, he saw behind the literal reality and realized that these Hebrew letters, Aleph Tav, the first and final letter of the Hebrew Alephbet, brought along with it everything from the beginning to the end, that an infinite world hides behind our apparently, or experienced, limited one (Breishit Bara Elokim Et HaShamayim v’Et Ha-Aretz God initially created Et the Heavens and Et the Earth–something beyond the physical universe was also created). Thus, no matter what appears to be the case, no matter how negative, painful, incomplete, seemingly bereft of God, is, indeed, the hidden doorway to the Good. Gamzu l’Tova, even this is good.

And, as the Ramchal among others point out again and again, the True Good is God Himself, Hodu L’ashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo. Give thanks to God because He is Good, His Love Persists Forever.

This Pesach, opening in just a few hours in Jerusalem, is marked by restrictions, self-isolations and quarantines in response to the Corona Virus, certainly the most fearful danger faced by mankind in living memory. There are a plethora of advices and Torot how to deal with the opposite of what we’ve come to expect, joyous gatherings of family and friends. Many people fear the coming isolation, wonder how we can possibly overcome our sadness and sense of loss. Many, including many orthodoxly observant, will remotely share their seders with those from whom they are physically apart, using modern electronic technology/media, and perhaps this is a good solution for many.

I, perhaps unexpectedly for someone with the reputation of being The Gregarious Hermit, relish the prospect of tonight’s solo Seder. No, I have no idea and, really, no expectations other than the fact that it will be different from every other Seder I’ve ever participated in. But when I stop to consider one of the main themes of every Seder, every year, every place, circling the globe and going back millennia, Mah Nishtanah Ha-Lylah HaZeh MiKol Ha-Laylot, How is this night different from all other nights? There is, in fact, no template to rely on, to preprogram the experiences each of us, uniquely, will have.

Without the familiar to, too often, lull us into a stupor of pattern, we can not help but to be radically astonished by tonight’s Seder, by the emotions we will feel, yes, including loneliness and longing, but also with the insights surrounding us if we open our eyes and hearts. Perhaps, like many Chassidic teachings, we’ll be able to grasp our loneliness and transform it to our longing for deeper, more intimate relationship with The Infinite. And, as the Maharal from Prague, the sixteenth century Kabbalist and philosopher, points out, merging with the Infinite makes oneself infinite. The transition from slavery to Pharaoh, to become servants of the Infinite God transforms us from profoundly limited to exhilarated freedom.

I also embrace the brokenness because this, imperfection, is the one trait that every human (and every created being) has in common. It can unite us in empathy and love for all, making this a living experience of true freedom, of unlimited possibilities and opportunities, rather than a mere “commemoration” of being emancipated one, “long ago and far away”…..

Freed from our own expectations and prejudices, tonight’s Seder promises transformations previously undreamt.

Gamzu l’Tova, yes, even the travails and tragedy of our day will lead eventually (and perhaps we have more control of when it manifests by allowing ourselves to fully experience tonight) to Good, Hodu L’ashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo, Praise to God Because His Loving Kindness is, indeed, Infinite.

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