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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Aishet Chayal: Not a Dating Ad

The desire and expectation to read everything literally discourages, no, it actually prevents, any kind of critical thinking and a mature understanding of Judaism. Similarly, treating Gemara as the source and raw material for The Rule Book yields a half-literate, superstitious and confomity-bound traditional religious leadership rather than the creative, compassionate and spiritual inspirers we so desperately need. Years of “learning Torah” are wasted when the basic understanding that Talmud is supposed to teach and train us how to break codes, make us all experienced inductive reasoners, both able and eager to go beyond the superficial. We talk about an omniscient God, but then try to approach and build a relationship with Him unwilling to meet him half-way by becoming as wise and intellectually adroit as we, each of us to our maximum potential, can be.

To even begin to recognize and understand and be enriched by the poetry of Torah, we need to assume that just as Torah reflects the Infinite God (Torah v’Kidshu Brich-He Chad HeymTorah and God are One), it need must exist simultaneously on many, perhaps infinite, levels of meaning. Traditional Torah study is based on the PaRDeS model, Pshat–simple, surface meaning, Remez–hinting at deeper, non-obvious meanings and relationships (gematria, numerology based on the number values of the Hebrew alphabet and the similarity and relationship between superficially unrelated words who share the same gamatria, number value, is perhaps the best-known Remez technique), Drash, meaning to search, often “filling in the blanks” of Biblical stories, splitting complex words into two or more smaller ones, taken as a whole implying a new direction to explore and Sod, secret, the deep, mystical implications of a word or verse. These “deeper” meanings often radically depart from the Pshat, but are considered equally true and of at least equal, often greater, value.

The value of these deeper levels is reflected in the rabbinic opinions that Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, superficially a book of love poems written by King Solomon, has no Pshat at all. In other words, our sages did not gratuitously promote an explicit book of love poems to the holiness of Scripture; rather, it is an allegory of the relationship between The Creator and The Jewish People. However, if you’re not trained to automatically recognize allegory and, instead, have been trained to read everything literally, not only will you miss the point, but you’ll then completely misunderstand not just Shir HaShirim, but also Aishet Chayil! (And most of the rest of Torah that you learn.)

If you were to try to apply this model to a human marriage, one of equal, but complementary partners, it would be a prescription for a disaster. At least I would never want to be in a marriage where my wife would be impossibly selfless, annoyingly competent and slavishly devoted to me. But that’s because an ideal marriage is a marriage of two equals, while, on the other hand, the relationship between God and man is, obviously, not equal. Nor would we want it to be, because that would mean we are relating to only the most infinitesimal shadow of The Creator. No, the metaphor of marriage is only that, a metaphor, and not either the literal truth or our true ideal of how to relate to God.

When our sages and prophets utilize the metaphor of romantic love to describe the ideal relationship between a Jew and God, Man is always the woman, which in these instances is to emphasize that we, humans, are merely the receivers while God, The Infinite Creator is the provider. Rather than a patronizing list of “good qualities for women”, we try to imagine and dedicate every possible way we can thank Hakadosh Baruch Hu for this unimaginable gift of life and of the world we live in, with the opportunity/challenge to merely passively enjoy it, but with the privilege of actually, substantially partnering with The Creator in His act of Creation by helping bring it to its final perfect form. Thus, each verse in this complex alphabetic acrostic is not merely a “Thank you, Mommy”, but a hint of the complete set of tikkunim, repairs, with which we can make our contribution to a perfected reality.

Ishah Yirat Hashem, the human who truly sees Hashem is Tithallel, has reached and embraced the ultimate glory.

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When reading philosophy, especially spiritual philosophy of various world religions, I’m always struck by how completely unknown any authentic Jewish wisdom is in the outer world. Of course, I take much of it for granted since it’s the dominant environment that I live in. But considering having grown up (in the 1950s US) in a “Judeo-Christian” culture, I was always shocked at just how little of the “Judeo” informs it.

In recent years, a common buzzword is mindfulness. Although it seems to begin with the Buddhism that characterizes much of the “New Age”, I now see it popping up in many current spiritual contexts. But it always seems focused and limited to being aware, mindful is you will, of how our actions impact the environment, society and other sensitive people. I’ll never hear that word coming from traditional (i.e. orthodox/chassidic) Jewish teachers who, rather, usually focus on the finer points of mitzva-observance. To be sure, in more modern, progressive denominations, each of which seem to stray ever farther from traditional emphases, especially mitzva-observance itself, you do hear that word, usually with a greater frequency the farther that denomination is from traditional study and observance. I tend to discount it as coming organically from Judaism itself or if it is a modern grafting, much like the over-used and usually misunderstood idea of tikkun olam, in order to make Judaism itself more palatable to folks whose tastes and values are more informed by contemporary western culture than by millennia of Jewish thought.

A related idea, however, which has long been central in the discussion of performing mitzvot, commandments, is  kavvana, intention. There is an age-old discussion as to whether to be valid a mitzva requires not only the actual performance, the act, but also the kavvana, the intention. This discussion develops into what me mean by kavvana–do we merely intend to perform the mitzva because we have been commanded to do so and want to fulfil our obligation or should be we aware of the deeper and more subtle, energetic effects of that mitzva and to then have the goal of that effect as our intention? Can we merely perform the action required since, obviously, whatever the Divinely Intended effect, it will be achieved, or will it? In other words, is the mental/emotional/spiritual effect the mitzva has on the person performing it the actual goal of the requirement or is there a more global, external, even if unobservable to human senses, goal?

All in all, this discussion begins to look a lot like one of “mindfulness”. But is our mindfulness the same mindfulness the Buddhist and the New Age crowd talk about? For one thing, Buddhism excludes the very idea of a deity, while the very foundation of Judaism is building, through Torah and the mitzvot, an intimate relationship with God. Perhaps the central kavvana in every mitzva and in every bracha, is awareness go God. When we say the most common kabbaistic kavvana, we declare our intention to unify the Holy Names which point to the universal masculine and feminine forces. We also explicitly mention that we intend to benefit the entire Jewish people (as well as to join out energy with all of them who also perform this mitzva).

The entire concept of Brachot, blessings, is based on acknowledging The Creator’s role in our lives. The requirement to say a bracha, either to give thanks, to sanctify/dedicate a mitzva/positive action, we’re about to undertake, as well as in general is the verse, Devarim 8,10, “V’Achalta v’savata u’verachta“, “You shall eat, be satisfied and then bless (The Lord your God and that good land)”. Literally every bracha in our liturgy, and, perhaps, the very concept of blessing, stems from this realization of God’s presence in even our most mundane, physical activities.

Mindfulness, indeed, is a central Jewish value, with the understanding that we aspire to be mindful, aware of and in gratitude to The Creator every moment of our lives. With the understanding (or the accumulated teachings) that the essential nature of God is beneficence, in other words, goodness. And this, in turn, requires us to be constantly aware, actively engaged, mindful of our obligations to His Creation, to the Heavens and the Earth, to all life forms, especially to our fellow humans and, even more centrally, to our fellow Jews (or, moving from the center outward, to our family, our community, our people, to all humanity, to all life, to the physical world and universe itself).

Rather than limiting ourselves and those we hope to influence with a superficial buzzword, may we, each day, increase our true mindfulness.

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Chanukah 2019

What can I possibly have to say about Chanukah that hasn’t already been said? That I haven’t already said or written? As the years continue, it can become increasingly difficult to keep talking and teaching, and in some ways even the rather simple observance, lighting the candles for eight day, becomes a challenge to keep fresh, relevant and worth opening my mouth (or word-processor). It’s all so familiar, a short-lived military victory so far in the past it’s tempting to experience it as merely mythic, an unlikely miracle we commemorate but don’t even begin to attempt to repeat–after all, we do add oil (or a candle) and an ever-increasing amounts, each of the eight days! And it coming in the middle of world-wide celebrations for other holidays, we don’t even stand out as the sole people finding something to celebrate right now–everyone feels the relief when the short dark days begin to lengthen, even if just a barely perceptible amount.

For one thing, it’s challenging to each of us, I think, to spare much thought for God if everything is more-or-less proceeding “as normal”. Even a great joy will so often fail to occupy us with our enjoyment of it, that any higher thoughts, gratitude to The Creator, for example, often, if at all, barely make an appearance.

Curiously, though, not that much needs to go wrong for us to immediately cry out for Divine Assistance. Here’s a real, seemingly trivial experience I had last night. It was pouring rain in Jerusalem. I walked and bussed to a pizza restaurant I especially enjoy and which is two stops past a five minute walk (or a fifteen minute walk). By the time I got home, all my clothes, outer and inner, were completely soaked. As I was taking off my shirt to hang it over a chair to dry overnight, a couple things I usually keep in my pocket fell on the floor. The one object which almost falls, often for no apparent cause, my plastic bus-pass card, didn’t hit the floor. I decided to take it out anyway and put it on the table with everything else. It wasn’t there!

I immediately checked other pockets I might have returned it to since when I last used it in the bus earlier that evening, my coat was zipped to my neck, making that pocket slightly inconvenient. Like most people, in cases like that I usually just slide it into my pants pocket or an outer pocket in my coat…..which were the first places I checked. As  you’d guess from that fact that I’m bothering to relate this story, it was in neither. I went back to the shirt pocket to check again and, obviously, it hadn’t mysteriously returned. It wasn’t in my wallet, nor on the floor near my front door, or anywhere else I had sat or walked past since returning home.

Hoping it might have fallen out of my pocket when (if–I’m actually pretty sure I at most loosened the zipper down to mid-body rather than taking off the coat) at the pizza restaurant, wouldn’t-you-just-know closed by now, I resolved to call them first thing in the morning and, if they had it, take a fast walk to retrieve it.

I should also mention, this was a Thursday night, meaning that the following morning, mid-Chanukah, would be one of the shortest afternoons in the year, with every store and office closing early if they open at all. The other remedy, the only one if the pizza restaurant didn’t have my card in the morning, was to buy a replacement–not very expensive, but an inconvenient trip on a short Friday. You see, the thing of it is that, theoretically at least, bus drivers no longer accept cash–you need one of these cards to use all public transportation in Jerusalem! And, it was going to be a very short Friday in terms of Shabbat shopping and then trying to add on any errands.

People who know me well at all know that I always have trouble sleeping, and when I know I have to get up sufficiently early to accomplish something on a deadline, I often stay up all night worrying about over-sleeping and missing it, so I didn’t really sleep at all that night. Friday morning saw me a wreck, but ready, or at least reconciled, to the extra errand(s). Eating and showering, it was time to dress. When it came time to take my shirt off the chair-back where it spent the night drying, my long-lost card fell to the floor! The first words out of my mouth were “Baruch Hashem!”, Praise/Thank/Acknowledge God!

Obviously, had that card behaved normally, I would have taken it from my pocket when needed, without acknowledging anything special or miraculous about it at all. Of course, I’d be ignoring the fact that I was living in Jerusalem, after close to 30 years of longing to return here. No, I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning, or probably even thinking about The Creator as I went about my everyday business. I’d take my health and vigor for granted, wouldn’t think a thing of the financial resources at my disposal (hadn’t I earned them? emphasis on “I”!). That there is a modern, thriving city of Jerusalem, on the site of our ancient capitol, filled with more Jews living much better and more comfortable and fulfilling lives, also considering that there are more Jews learning Torah here than anytime in history, as I was merely boarding a bus or walking into a store or enjoying a slice of pizza, would have passed without a thought.

This is related to Chanukah extending over seven full days. Seven days is a week, a week out, a time out, reality resumes with the new week. But Chanukah continues even after the week is over. In one sense, it transforms sacred time into “plain old regular” time because we’ve become used to, and at least slightly immune to the holiness of these days. With no restrictions on work or fire or electricity or driving, they just seem like normal days with a candle-lighting ceremony at the end (actually the beginning of each new day….).

But, while seven signifies the normal work-week, eight transcends that reality and thrusts us directly into holy time. Chanukah performs the “now you see it now you don’t” hocus pocus magic of allowing us to experience each of these days as both special, holy, and normal, mundane.

Because that is, indeed, the human condition,  one foot always in the holy, the other foot destined to operate in this physical world of striving, Asiya.

So, the opportunity to experience the direct appearance of The Creator as my bus card appears and disappears, my anxiety suddenly relieved which prompts, almost automatically, the declaration of Baruch Hashem, seems to underline the miracle of Chanukah, not just that oil lasted longer or that we were able to defeat a numerically and technologically superior enemy, but that we’re jolted to realize that each and every day is filled with the presence, the Hashgacha Pratit of our Creator.

Chag Urim Sameach!

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“The Same Thing On Every Page”

I’ve been working with Renewal Judaism for more than twenty years. When I first contacted Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Reb Zalman, zichrono l’bracha (obm) in the early days of the internet (I found his name while glancing through a roster of AmericaOnLine members) he told me that I had to meet his friend Reb Dovid, David Wolfe-Blank, zichrono l’bracha, who was also living in Seattle. Although I am, and always have been (even in my “vacation” from Judaism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (sex, drugs and rock-n-roll) “orthodox”; the synagogue that I would only occasionally attend was orthodox, and traditional Torah study, what we call “learning”, Mishna and occasionally even Gemara, were never too far away), I was having a difficult time, to say the very least, trying to fit into the Seattle communities as a former Israeli, father of two (and then three and then four), on my way to earning orthodox smicha (rabbinic ordination). I needed a fresh breath of air (one of the reasons we, as a family, had moved from Jerusalem to Seattle was, specifically, for the clean fresh air (those years, the ones before the recent explosive growth and accompanying traffic!), but the very “freshness” of the air seemed to have filtered out the type Jewish inspiration and motivation we needed as a family. Although I never found a home with Renewal, I did get to know a number of remarkable people, foremost among them Reb Dovid, z”l, and I very much enjoyed his friendship for several years.

He tragically died in an horrific auto accident in 1998, and for several years after, Eitz Or, the Seattle synagogue he had led, would always set up a memorial table where/whenever it met. There would usually be a portrait, a number of his meta-parshiot, commentaries on the weekly Torah reading, along with several of his more memorable sayings. The one which always struck me said, “It always says the same thing on every page”.

Although we discussed that idea a number of times, he never really wanted to limit what universal message was. In the following twenty-some years, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I always come up with the same answer.

The underlying message on “every page” (be it the siddur, chumash, talmud, halacha, zohar, chassidut, kabbalah, mussar, midrash or anything else is, very simply, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, Fill your ears/heart/mind/soul, Israel, The Unknowable, Not Even Speakable God Who Surrounds Us And Also Fills Us Completely Is One And The Same (and we, and our entire world, is One with Him).

That’s all nice, but there’s a great distance to travel between intellectually acknowledging that this is the essential core of our every prayer, every Torah lesson, every meditation, every good deed and mitzvah, every personal interaction and bringing that into active, experiential and shared reality.

We pay lip service to God every day, just as I suspect do those of all other faiths (and also those “faiths” without a deity pay lip service to their eternal truths). It’s not so much that we’re lazy, but it’s even been an halachic consensus for quite a while that we are a weak generation, and getting weaker each successive generation. (This is the main reason why even many of the holiest haredi, ultra-orthodox, rabbis actively discourage fasting for all accept the youngest, healthiest, most fit. The rest of us, especially on those fasts which are more lenient to begin with, usually spend more time thinking about our stomachs than about anything slightly approaching The Holy when our blood-sugar first begins to  plummet.

Not only that, but modern man is so engaged with the external outer world, be it with our necessary labor, with our all-too-engaging electronic toys, with our 24/7 news cycle, with our compulsion to acquire more and more expensive and addictive toys, it seems there’s little if any time to contemplate serious profundities. It just makes you too different, too much an outsider.

Nonetheless, even completely caught up in the crassest of material expeditions, we can remind ourselves that not only are we, as well as our fellow students, friends and family, our competitors and rivals, we’re all just manifestations of the One, the One energy, the One material, the One unifying energy. In fact, even that crassest material we pursue, whatever it might be, must necessarily also be fully comprised of Adonai Echad, because, if we really understand what we’re saying, what else is there?

This isn’t meant to open the door to spurious quasi-mathematical fallacy where, misapplying the “Transitive Rule of Numbers” we can equate the good with the evil by saying if A = C and B = C, A=C since even though everything, ultimately is God, or at least one of His infinite aspects, the important recognition is that His manifestations are not identical with each other. Part of The Whole is not identical to The Whole.

On the other hand, it does oblige us to see The Divine and The Perfect not just in every person we encounter, but every experience, no matter how painful or evil, contains by necessity at least a spark, a Netzutz of the Holy, the Kadosh.

Constantly remembering and always meditating (at least in the background) on this ubiquitous Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, allows us to perform our deepest Avoda, Holy Service, the find, redeem and lift every Netzutz Kodesh that is uniquely relevant to our unique Neshama and lift it to the Holy Oneness of the universe.

Returning to the actual books, each of which pages contain this message, we see that our challenge in davening (praying) and/or learning is to find this Achdut, integral unity with The Creator, not just in every page, but in every line, every word, even every holy letter and also individual ink strokes that make up each letter, not to mention the white, empty space surrounding each and every letter.

I am indebted to the Meor Eynayim on Parshat Matot for his insights into the concept of Netzutzei HaKodesh, Holy Sparks.

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Completely Out-Of-Phase

Judaism is not a solo act. Although each of us definitely has a unique relationship with The Creator, our covenant is as a member of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. The same weekly day is Shabbat for all of us and the Chaggim occur on the same day each year for each of us, no matter where we live (with the exception of Second Day Chag in the Diaspora), what we believe or how we choose to participate. Yom Kippur, for example, is, and always has been, characterized by fasting, just as Sukkot is centered around the experience of leaving the comfort and security of our permanent homes and dwelling a fragile, temporary Sukkah for a week.

Ironically, since I’ve returned to live in Jerusalem several years ago, health has moved me out of the group of people who are able/halachically-allowed to fast (on Yom Kippur or any other day) and my apartment for the last three Sukkots has had no possibility for my own Sukkah! Imagine that after almost thirty years of fasting and “religiously” building and, as much as was possible in Autumn Seattle, sitting in my Sukkah, longing to fulfill these Mitzvot once again in Yerushalayim, I can’t.

I’ve been forced to recalibrate how to authentically participate in these primal Jewish yearly experiences. Without the central observances of each of these two Chaggim, how do I, nonetheless, incorporate them into my spiritual, social and physical life, and how to I include myself in the Jewish body politic when I am so out-of-phase with everyone who surrounds me?

At this point, after a couple years of these challenges, I must say thay I don’t have a very satisfying answer for myself, at least not one that would have any possibility of working for me if I were still in living in Galut, the Diaspora. One consideration which contributes my current situation is that to be fully immersed in Jewish culture and community here, I merely can find a bench on a sidewalk and enjoy the Jerusalem sun on my face as I’m enveloped by the current of Jews walking/driving/bicycling/scootering down the road. Religious or secular, I’m part of a society where a high percentage of people, regardless their level halachic conformity, have family dinners every Friday night, who restrict their eating on Yom Kippur, one way or another, who will, at least if convenient, duck their heads inside a Sukkah, at least on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant this week and will probably even make the blessing, l’Shev b’Sukkah, to sit in a Sukkah with a smile and sense of satisfaction, even if they do it only once or twice the entire week.

How can I, despite my own observance restrictions–and don’t we all, no matter how “observant” find ourselves at least somewhat restricted or self-restricting, opting paritally-in, partially out, throughout our lives?–not feel an integral part of not only Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, but also Torat Yisrael, our complex, intricate and infinitely beautiful religious tradition and practice?

Moadim l’Simcha and Shabbat Shalom

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Thoughts For The Ten Days

The theme of these days, beginning with Rosh HaShana, continuing through Yom Kippur, is Avinu Malkenu. Avinu Malkenu, Chatanu L’fanecha, “Our Father our King, we have sinned before you”, begins a litany of most conceivable sins one could possibly commit. Although it’s likely that each of us have not transgressed the entire catalog, probable that we have, indeed, committed very few of them, Avinu Malkenu usually runs anywhere from 27 (Yemenite) to 38 (Ashkenazi), 44 (Polish) to 53 (Saloniki) verses, each specifying a unique sin or class of sins!

In spite of the cliché of Jewish Guilt, we really don’t assume that we are all base and vile sinners, so why the orgy of obsessive collective confessions, at least twice a day, until Yom Kippur, when we really lay it on? Rather, Torah can, and should, lead each of us to ever deeper and more mature and sophisticated spiritual insights and understandings. Instead of a nation of infants, we are, indeed, a nation capable, and thus responsible to, bring spiritual enlightenment to the entire world.

Avinu, Av Shelanu, our Father, means much more than God is The Creator and we, the created. The begetter/the-begot is too simplistic and obvious for much discussion. But an only slightly deeper exploration of Av, Father, leads to the Kabbalistic idea of Abba, the primordial father, the underlying mature masculine drive to create, Arich Anpin, the large face, rather than the baby face of Zeir Anpin, the not-yet-tried boy-child. This is the drive to create, to bring the new into being, that is everything we can imagine, all for the benefit of that greater than our individualities. Our Divine Nature to emulate God Who Creates for the benefits only of others, and not to selfishly satisfy His Own Desires.

Likewise, Malkenu, our Malchut, which is the field which contains all existence. She is Shechina, the Holy Divine Feminine, the Womb/Container of all there is.

And thus these few days focus on our greatest powers of creativity, bringing the primordial creation of Rosh HaShana (the birthday of the world) to it’s realized perfection, to the point where all is judged, in the highest and most profound sense, to be Tov, Good, inscibed and sealed (a lasting permanence to our achievement) in Sefer HaChayim, the Book of Life, fulfilling our potential, not merely “worthy”, but destined for permanence, for Chayei Olam HaBa, for Holy Eternal Life.

May it be His Will, may it be our deeds.

Gmar Chatima Tova

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Elul, First Step To Transcending—Just Do It

Parshat Shoftim, always read at the beginning of Elul, the run-up month to Rosh HaShana, begins Shoftim v’Shotrim Titeyn L’Cha B’Chol Sha’arecha. We’re instructed to create a justice system including judges and law enforcement. But it wasn’t until the Oral Torah was completed, 1500 years later, that we had detailed instructions as to how we were supposed to have done that. I think it’s fair to assume there the Torah includes the challenge to “figure it out for yourselves” in that and most other mandates. Similarly, although we believe that the Written Torah, The Tanach, was, in fact, given with full explanation to Moses at Sinai, even traditionally very few argued that it was given word-for-word as the Talmud later distilled it. We’re challenged to do our best to figure out how to fill in the details of at keast 613 mandates (Mitzvot).

Our weekly Musaf nusach, liturgy, includes the phrase Sh’Ta’aleynu b’Simcha L’Artzeynu, Lift us (lead us in Aliyah) joyously to Our Land, again without really explaining how that is supposed to look. No one is more supportive of Aliyah and the Mitzvah of Settling the Land than I, and, once again, I am blessed to, once again,after nearly 30 years away, live in Jerusalem. But with almost my entire family almost 7,000 miles away, it’s an unsolved mystery to me how to accomplish it with only joy, no sadness, in my heart. Once again, I’m left to work this out for myself.

Each year, as we approach and then enter the month of Elul, we are over-bombarded with cliché drashim, sermons, spelling out the month’s name in the letters Aleph-Lamed-Aleph-Lamed, then expanded to a key phrase in Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi Li, I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine, describing our ideal relationship with The Creator.

Superficially simple, we’re supposed to love God just as we experience God loving each of us. What that really means is that our love for God, ideally, is identical in every way with God’s love for us. Without explanation, we can’t even imagine what this might possibly be and how we, limited beings existing as physical bodies in time, can possibly emulate the Infinite, Unbounded, All-Powerful, All-Knowing Creator in any way or any action, especially Love. How can our relatively pathetic little love even be spoken in the same breath as God’s Infinite Love for each of us, not to mention for not only all mankind, but for all of Creation?

The answer is we don’t and can’t know. The best we can do is to try to emulate what we, stretching our minds and hearts, might imagine, is God’s Infinite Love. Just as God doesn’t hold back, are we willing to love, then to love even more and even more, without any feedback or hint that we’re reaching our goal or that our love is even perceived or reciprocated. Are we willing to go all out, to love “The Lord (y)our God with all (y)our heart, with all (y)our soul, with all (y)our material possessions?” Are we willing to dedicate outselves to entering a new year, a new cycle, full of new opportunities even though pre-loaded with our previous partial accomplishments and our mistakes, to forge always forward with no thought or feeling but Infinite Love for The Inifinite One and, therefore all His Creation?

Of course, we’ll fall short. We’re all limited human beings, or at least partially so. (That we’re, as part of God’s Infinite Creation, especially in the role of Human, Ben Adam, also Infinite with Infinite potential and capacity, we must at least partially believe that we really are capable of reaching God’s goals for us). But we all have an almost unlimited capacity to try to approach this pinnacle of love and connection, at least to remind ourselves that it’s within reach, Lo Rachok, not distant but Karov Maod, very very close. Within ourselves and surrounding each of us, is that capacity to experience Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi Li.

May we each be incribed for a year of only good.

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Modeh Ani–Daily Thanks

You don’t always get a second chance and should never count on a “do-over”. When you are graced (and I use that word deliberately, referring to the Hebrew word, Chen, which is associated with Chesed, loving-kindness, and Rachamim, compassion) with one of life’s rare second chances, you should feel obligated to be grateful (obviously related to, and returning Grace).

Although it’s also an obligation (Shulchan Aruch HaRav א:א:ו) for a Jew to begin every day reciting the phrase, Modeh Ani L’Fanechah Melech Chai v’Kayam, I acknowledge and am filled with thanks, before You, Living and Eternal Majesty…., there is reciting it and there is reciting it. In other words, it can become an habitual mumble just before you run to the bathroom, fully devoid of any meaning other than, “There! I said it. Next mitzva coming up…..” or it can, and should be and profound awareness of the grace of our soul returning to our body, to the awakening, for one more morning, of our consciousness.

In addition to that, it has taken a personal meaning for me these last almost three years. While I have recovered from serious health challenges, and I am also daily thankful for those miracles, I have a special awareness that I have been graced with the opporutnity to have made what I call Aliyah 2.0.

I first moved to Israel in 1982 and intended to remain here for the rest of my life. I married, began a family (two of my four children were born in Jerusalem), bought my first (and second) home, planned and designed (along with my then-wife) a brilliant apartment remodel. I found a Rebbe who got me over the hump to be able to learn Gemara with intense pleasure, I found a loving and supportive community of close friends. Although I missed my US family, I was intensely happy. But it came too easily and, almost imperceptively, crashed into disaster.

Serious problems with neighbors (i.e. nextdoor neighbors who shared the common  staircase with us and whose front door was less than a meter from ours, escalating to physical threats and actual attacks (setting their dog to run over my oldest daughter, just beginning to walk, on these stairs), moving to the Israeli legal system and learning that as American immigrants we were at serious disadvantages, led to our returning to the US for what was originally intended to be a two-year sabbatical to cool out.

For me, it lasted almost thirty years until I returned home, to Jerusalem, divorced, physically distant from my children, a senior with significant health issues (which seriusly complicated in my first six months here). I also returned here ecstatically happy to be back home in Israel. And in spite of almost immediate health challenges which froze all my ambitious plans and dreams, and which had taken all of the subsequent two years to substantially recover from, it now gives a second, double meaning to my Modeh Ani–my first waking thought is that, somehow, against all odds (and half the time I think agaist my better sense and judgement (again, so intensely missing my children and grandchild)), having expending most of my fortune and strength) here I am. The first air I breath is Jerusalem! The first light that washes my eyes, Jerusalem! The first sounds, the first bird-calls, Jerusalem!

And it’s not at all what I anticipated nor what I had thought was motivating me to make this my home. Of all the old friends I had expected to fill my new life, at most I regularly see two or three families. The various Torah opportunities I was sure would be here just for my taking, many of them went by the wayside when I was physically and health-wise incapable of learning to any profound degree (I’m only, in the last six months, returning to my former mental abilities, but as I learned to focus my efforts to only that which I intensely want to study (these days, mostly Ramchal, Zohar and Gemara), I find that relatively few people I can find here are as exclusively interested in them as I am.

Looking forward to Aliyah, especially at the time that film and enlarging paper had left the world (and, especially, the world of photography), I hoped to change careers (even at this late, post-65 age) and enter, perhaps the technical writing, or something else related to the tech-boom here, field (my earliest background, for those who don’t know, was math, fledgling computer science and linguistics). But, again, health issues, leading to bureaucratic ones (I was unable to register, let alone complete an approved Ulpan, a prerequisite to most technical-writing entries) intervened.

The point is that my experience and joy of living in Israel has little to do with anticipated conquests or successes. I’ve also learned that meaning is rarely synonymous with “profundity”, I’ve had almost zero epiphanies, flashes of insights, lightning bolts or what might be described as “peak spiritual experiences”. Rather, the profundity for me, the daily joy, is the simple joy of being part, a very small part, of an historic and universal miracle, the rebirth of Am Yisrael, the Jewish Nation, in our hereditary homeland, Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. The revival of an all but ritual or academically, dead language (even if my participation probably does more to “kill” than to revitalize Ivrit…)

Yes, I’m able to occasionally (actually, almost as often as I’d like) to ascend Har HaBayit, to feel there the strongest available experience of “divine vibes”, that inexpressible, intangible but nonetheless real experience of God’s presence on Earth), but that comes at a price of intense cognitive dissonace from the enforced (by our own Israeli/Jewish Police) prohibition again Jewish prayer or any other visible religious expession (I’m astounded we’re allowed to cover our heads)) and the often vocal radical Moslem protest. Perhaps my personal lesson is that the hope for a peak experience isn’t really why I’m here, but it’s really the simple, prosaic, day-to-day of walking with, bus-riding with, talking (even with immense grammatical mistakes) Hebrew with fellow Jews who, only a generation or two ago were just as unskilled in this language (as a daily language–obviously many of us had ritual or academic fluency, but I’ve always likened that to arriving in the US from Eastern Europe with a college degree in Chaucer, thinking you could “make it on the street”…..).

It’s the good-natured daily life with, finally, my people. The sense that whatever my successes and failures, even with the frequent childless loneliness, other types of aloneness, coming to terms that so many former goals will never be reached, that I am finally, actually, at home, with my people, most of whom I don’t know and will never know, but who are, nonetheless, my people.

And for all that, I can’t begin my day in any manner other than full and profound, fully-felt joy and gratitue that, each day both a fresh and a continuing miracle, that I am here.

Modeh Ani Lifanech, Melech Chai v’Kayam….

These began as my thoughts for Av, the Hebrew month that begin today, on the ninth (Tisha) of which we remember and commemorate the violent destruction of our Holy Temple and the beginning of our seemingly endless Exile (Galut). But I experienced (as I do yearly) and finally, this year, admitted to myself, the cognitive dissonance of mourning a Jerusalem “abandoned and bereft”, a “collection of the shells of destroyed buildings”, poverty-filled, eternally sick and depressed while observing and experiencing daily the most dynamic place I’ve ever encountered. Not only are there building and employment and income and tech booms, but there are more Jews seriously studying Torah right here, within the precints of Yerushalyim than any time in history! That, although our access is still imperfect, we are able to ascend Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount, almost at will, and that an ever-growing number of Jew as well as people of all faiths have ascended this year (remember, the Temple, when it re-manifests, is specifically to be a House of Prayer for All Nations (Bet Tefilla l’kol haAmim))!

Although we’ve a ways to go, I doubt if Jerusalem has ever been as great as it is today. Sure, I’ll take a day to mourn that we haven’t yet achieved our long-dreamed goal, as well as the pain, torture and horror so many of our people have endured over the millennia, but I’ll also take the rest of the year to celebrate that we’ve never let that dream die, that throughout our high points and our lows, we’ve stedfastly and stubbornly maintained our goal, that we’ve come as far as we have and that I, against all odds, am here to participate, to contribute and just to enjoy.

Modeh Ani Lifanecha……

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Is The Breach Bridgeable?

Closing my eyes to something unspeakably sad and depressing doesn’t make it disappear. Nor can I merely refuse to speak of it, naively hoping it will no longer be there the next time I take a peek.

The breach in the Jewish People, often characterized by the lack of tolerance and understanding between Israel and the diaspora, is real. We might already, chas v’shalom, have passed the point-of-no-return, but either way, it’s only getting worse, almost on a daily basis.

It manifests itself in the precipitous drop of support for Israel among America’s non-orthodox Jews and the anger that causes on both sides of the argument. (Not to mention the contempt many Israelis feel for American Jews.) Many, and certainly the dominant voice in media and politics, American Jews are so upset with and fed-up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, often applying the very same type of personal hatred they display for American President Donald Trump. Many feel betrayed by the rapid movement away from what they consider not only necessary for Israel’s physical survival, but also for the spiritual survival of the Jewish People, which is a fully independent Palestinian nation in the territories largely lost by Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 war of annihilation against Israel. What had been experienced with bursting pride by most Jews around the world at that time as an almost Divine intervention to save Israel from vastly superior Arab armies, has now been rewritten by many to somehow be a heartless effort to establish and strengthen a colonial conquest by Europeans over a peaceful, indigenous population of Palestinian Arabs who, as the new liberal-orthodoxy expresses it, had been in the Land of Palestine since time immemorial.

Identification with Israel, let alone a sense of Jewish obligation to settle in our ancient homeland, has been rebranded, or as those who promote this point of view, or discovered to be almost the lowest form of fascism.

Since in the US, the majority of Jewish support for Israel remains in the minority “orthodox” camp, there has been a rapid and intentional distancing from orthodox approaches to Judaism.

This isn’t to cast all blame on the non-orthodox, since at the same time the mostly modern orthodox establishments have surrendered, in many cases almost entirely, to the haredi, ultra-orthodox. establishment. Even in “modern orthodox” schools, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many Torah teachers who identify with modern orthodoxy and who are not actively promoting the most extreme, often intolerant of other Jews, forms of hashgacha, philosophy, and halacha, religious and ritual law and observance.

When hate between communities is not stopped in the bud, but rather promoted by too many leaders of both sides, this disastrous deterioration accelerates in a downward spiral.

To a point not unfamiliar today where many orthodox leaders brand conservative/reform/reconstructionist/renewal rabbis and congregants as sinners, evil folk and goyim (non-Jews). Many of those leaders return the favor by branding those Jews in black clothes, black hats, long-sleeved/full-length dresses and wigs or other severe hair covering as dinosaurs, bigots, relics, fanatics and responsible for the upsurge in world-wide antisemitism.

While the Right often proclaims “God on ours side”, many in the left rarely give thought at all to “God”, declaring Him dead, an obsolete concept, tribal and worse. Each side is convinced that the other is 100% responsible for the breach in the Jewish People, some of them celebrating the fact, others mourning.

Without a vested interest in casting blame in one direction and white-washing the other, I do count myself, unequivocally, among the mourners.

All too often we have moved to a point where we lack a common language (I’m not talking about Hebrew here). While those in the traditional camp retains the traditional definition and concept of Mitzva as a God-ordained set of actions to either perform or to refrain from, if not identical with practices of hundreds of years ago, at least part of a traceable heritage from previous practices. The progressive camp, when it retains the Mitzva-language at all, has redefined them as promoting contemporary liberal political stances, and in a conflict between tradition and these contemporary values, tradition always, 100%, loses.

Both sides have convincing arguments, at least when preaching to their own choirs, why they’re right and the other side filled with evil extremists.

And I find my eyes overlowing with tears as I, too often, despair of any human-based solution.

Although I love Am Yisrael, including those on the “opposite” side of the divide, I am, and always have been (even in my lapsed years) “orthodox” (even though I really despise the denominalization of Judaism). That said, I need to clarify my recent essay, https://rabbizeitlin.com/2019/06/21/welcoming-infinity/. When I critique frozen halacha, I’m mainly talking about the various dynamics at work in the larger “orthodox” world, especially the tension between backward-looking, too-often-circle-the-wagons-defensive approach and those who are looking for halacha to lead us forward to the ultimate Geula, Redemption, the complete revelation of God’s Infinite Presence, His Shechinah, into even this most physical and material aspects of existence.

This state is what I refer to when I use the too-often-repeated phrase, Tikkun Olam. Because I believe that, first, this is possible only with Siyata d’Shemaya, Divine help. And that the essence of that help and guidance is the totality of the Mitzva system He assigned to us, millennia ago, in His (and our) Holy Torah.

Mitzvot must be recalibrated and re-aimed only to make them more effective, truer to the mark, and not to make them, somehow, more palatable to passing value systems. Torah, in its very essence, is timeless. Of course, Mitzvot will only be performed if they’re perceived and experienced positively. But the “shortcoming” when it occurs, is not a fault in Torah, chas v’shalom, but rather a major failure within today’s orthodox leadership and educational system, who too often leave outworn assumptions about people unexamined, or who lack strong Emunah, belief/faith, in the Creator and that His/our Torah is infinitely (more) vibrant and enduring, able to (actually, engineered to) speak to all Jews at all times.

We can, and must, find solutions.

Am Yisrael Chai, Am Yisrael Chad Hi (The Jewish Nation Lives/The Jewish Nation is One).

Shabbat Shalom

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