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 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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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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