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, 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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Welcoming Infinity

Now that I have another deeply satisfying Shavuout under my belt, I have a confession to make. Until the very last moment, when I was finally immersed in the day (or, in this case, the evening), I wasn’t really sure I could bring it off,  wholeheartedly celebrating receiving the Torah.

In these religiously polarized days, especially in Jerusalem, but I suspect wherever Jews take traditional practice seriously, Modern Orthodox (for want of a better label) Jews seem to be trapped in a high-speed march, if not to actually join the ranks of the haredi, ultra-orthodox, they are continuously looking over their collective shoulder hoping to avoid criticism or delegitimization. Being declared “not really frum” seems the equivalent of being declared “Not Really Jewish”. Do I really want anything to do with this Torah?

The Torah and by extension The Creator, are by definition and by logical necessity Infinite. Of course, we’re quick to pay lip service to this concept, but too often don’t realize that when placing any limitation whatsoever on the fractalized infinity of Torah we simultaneously deny God’s Infinity. And in a society where we seem to have, chas v’Shalom, granted infallibility to certain Torah scholars, declared by a small insider group within a tiny corner of the Yeshiva World, or, even worse, self-declared, as Gedolim, literally Great Ones, using the faulty principle of Daas Torah, an assumption that since Torah reflects God and God is omniscient, one can acquire complete and perfect knowledge of Absolutely Everything, exclusively and only through Torah study.

This then implies that these “semi-divine” Gedolim not only know everything there is to know (including about subjects (for example in highly technical specialties of science, but that they can determine an eternal and universal Psak Halacha (ruling in Jewish Law) which is binding on everyone, regardless of their individual situations and the individual situations and event which brought them to where they are).

This makes for not only a very lazy Halacha (even if conforming to specific rulings might be very effort- (and often financially) intensive. It often seems “martyr”-oriented, rewarding hardship and a meanness in everyday life, over actual achievement and intimate closeness to The Creator. Remember, as I have always been taught by my rabbis and teachers, a great Posek (halachic decider) is one who can make something already being done permitted, to bring more Jews into the realm, the “big tent” as it were, Tachat Kanfei HaShechinah (Beneath the Wings of the Shechinah (Feminine Divine Eternal Presence), rather than one who can exclude and disqualify.

You see, the purpose of Mitzvot, including immersing ourselves as fully as each of us is individually able in Torah, is in order to keep ourselves in constant engagement and relationship with The Creator Who, with his His Holy Torah, is One.

Shavuot, two weeks ago, celebrated receiving this Torah. Like all Jewish holidays, we mark God’s active intervention and participation in human events, more specifically, the ongoing experience of The Jewish People. Although this year we observe an approximate 3300 year anniversary, we’re supposed to re-experience this Divine Ecounter and Spiritual Explosion anew, as if it’s happening for the first and eternal time right now.

It takes a bit of mental self-manipulation to keep this up with much excitement and happiness year after year throughout a normal human lifespan. For me it has to be much more than a Groundhog Day Deja Vu (watch the 1993 Harold Ramis movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell both to catch the reference and to spend an enjoyable hour-and-a-half) experience (one that’s always new because my memory is wiped out between repetitions). The actual Torah, or at least my honest experience of it, must evolve and deepen each year.

But how can that work if the Torah is eternal, timeless and unchanging, just as we try to define The Creator. What appears to me as necessarily obvious is that God is also Infinite, and that in a way we can sort of point at, give a mental nod to, but never, Chas v’Shalom, actually define or experience.

One important implication of this is that Torah can never be simplified and unitary. Just as there are 613 Mitzvot (Commandments, Rules, Requirements), they are necessarily individuated for each Jew, and not just that, but for each Jew at each moment of his or her life. This is because a Mitzva is much more than a rule or a prescribed action to take or to avoid, but, rather, as the encompassing term Halacha (The Walking), system of Mitzvot implies, each is an approach to Divinity, to one’s individual and personal relationship with The Creator. And just as God created myriad people (there are at least 600,000 root souls (shoreshei neshama) in the Jewish People (the same as the number of letters in a Sefer Torah, written Torah scroll (including the “hidden” letters (which aren’t seen and “exist” only in oral tradition), which have, over the millennia, combined and recombined to countless individual Jewish personalities, each of which has not only the opportunity but the obligation to forge a relationship with The Creator, but to refine, i.e. closen and deepen it, every moment.

Perhaps no earlier than 1980, the Haredi world became enamored with the concept of Daas Torah, that the Torah “speaks”, i.e. has an absolute say and opinion in every topic and area of knowledge in the universe. This has enabled a perhaps idealistic, but perhaps politically-minded and small group of leaders of a particular grouping of rabbis to claim perfect knowledge of all reality and, thus, to be able to almost mechanically derive halacha in every single situation. Obviously, this requires a massive reductionist effort to simplify halacha to a single, unchanging answer which is not effected by time, place, the individual situation and experiences of the individual Jew involved.

Although this view has gained much traction in recent years and it’s supporters will obviously condemn my opinion, I must reject this idea as absolutely heretical, requiring a limitation on God, chas v’Shalom!

Because, ultimately, this is the bottom line. We cannot even, in any way whatsoever, especially not in a well-intentioned attempt to “honor the sanctity of the Torah” accept even the slightest movement towards limiting the Infinitude of The Creator.

So, when forcing oneself to always retain the awareness that the Torah cannot be limited, that Halacha cannot be frozen in any era or mement in time, that change and evolution is built into the very fabric of the Torah and, perhaps, most importantly, that I and no one else is ever, by definition, able to comprehend the entire Torah, it does, indeed, become something so special, so precious, so divine, there can be no responses but to welcome, to celebrate and to treasure it. And to eternally thank the Holy Creator who renews our receiving of it every year at this time.

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RebZ’s Personal Pesach Challenge

Here we are, just a few days (or hours) from the start of Pesach, and other than check what’s availabe, what’s needed to purchase, day-to-day life continues and I figure that “by hook or by crook”, I’ll be able to create a phycical environment, especially here in Jerusalem, where I won’t eat Chametz for the week. But is that the only goal? Can I define or quantize the relationship I want to maintain with The Creator only by listing those things which aren’t, this time around, acting as a barrier? Aren’t there more elements to this relationship, positive rather than defensive?

Are there any limits to how free you will allow yourself to be/feel, beginning as Pesach arrives? Who, other than God, could possibly limit you? And why on earth would He possibly want to do that?

I hope and pray I’ll be able to go “all the way” when the great light will be revealed into our world oh so soon.  Especially this year, when the approach to Pesach has, for me, been accompanied by health challenges (ultimately, no so serious or threatening, but I can utilize the fear and pain (all of it tolerable and on its way out, thank God)) to boost my insights and, perhaps my courage. I want to repeat and emphasize that this is not my situation, but I have been given a glimpse into the reality so I can imagine, if this were to be my very last message, my final Torah lesson to friends, students and family, even into the future, why hold back anything? Why not go for the deepest truths, most plainly stated, as I can? Tomorrow, I assure you (and myself), I’ll be back to hiding behind my usual pretensions of normailty and denial.

So, let’s go and please, hang on to your hats!

Pesach promises unconditionally, complete and total freedom. Whether or not we really know what that means, we stand on the verge of being completely connected with the Ultimate Will, the Ultimate Infinite beyond our imaginations!

For reference, let’s go back to what Moshe and Aharon repeatedly request from Pharoah, to go a three-day journey, in other words beyond their current reality, both in time and in place, to serve the Lord. Unsure what that means and what that will take, they ask to bring everything with them, with their cattle (symbolic of our Avoda, Service, at the Mishkan/Temple), with their children (their not-yet known/realized future, whatever it will be).

This might or might not, depending on where you are in life and your Jewish journey, and depending on the Jewish/rabbinic environment which can both enhance and block all our individual efforts (for example, we can completely forget the goal by focusing on, say, the “authority” of each hechsher (kosher certificate) on each thing we eat (how much of that is honestly Torah-driven, how much politically?) or should we celebrate that (if we’re indeed so lucky this year) to be surrounded by an almost limitless choice of kosher-for-passover food? Whether we can daven in a wide variety of synagogues and minyanim, or even on our own if that feels most authentic and effective this time around, or if we must (as we had in many historical times) surreptitiously sneak around in search for a small group of fellow-minded seekers and hope for the best?

The mere fact that this year, 5779, the vast majority of the world’s Jews enjoy at the very least the freedom to participate in the age-old-yet-timeless rituals of Pesach should compel us to make our own choices most consciously, filled with love and gratitude, and dedicated to bring, if not this year, then then next, complete freedom (i.e. complete attachment to The Infinite (not t be confused with the illusion of infinite choice) to ourselves, to our families, to our people, to all the world.

Even for those of us privileged this year to physically experience Pesach in geographical Jerusalem, may we next year merit celebrating and experiencing out connection with the Creator free of all obstacles and distractions (including our own insecurities and fears) in the total environment we merely hint at as Jerusalem.

L’Shana HaBa’a B’Yerushalayim. Gam HaShana HaZot.

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Time To Make Our Connection Real

We can find many levels and objectives in Mitzvah observance. Certain individual mitzvot seem specifically directed to a specific goal or set of goals.  Some seem to aim for the unity and survival of Am Yisrael. Others have moral lessons in addition to whatever unknowable spiritual purpose they may have. Many seem to focus primarily on separating and isolating Jews socially from their neighbors, not because there is always something inherently repugnant about our neighbors, but because of the absolute necessity throughout history, often in mortally hostile environments, to preserve Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. While in a mystical sense, we are forbidden to eat certain foods, it’s because that particular food, at least in normal circumstances, is so energetically dense that we are incapable of isolating the Nitzutz HaKodesh, Holy Spark, and then raising it to it’s appropriate stature in the idealized world—better we leave it as it is, either until our power here is enhanced by circumstance or another, more capable, Jewish Soul comes around, the generally offered and accepted, much more mundane reason is to discourage socializing and intermarriage.

Others, like Eglah Arufah (Devarim 21:1-29), a very hard to fathom ritual which is activated when discovering an unsolved murder in an uninhabited place, presents no clue as to how, if even it’s aimed at, to solve this murder mystery. Nonetheless, it is one of the 613, and co-equal with all the other, mitzvot.

Of course, there are mitzvot pertaining to the brachot we make, acknowledging God’s role in a cascade of life situations, from awakening in the morning, to eating, to performing other mitzvot, to performing our natural bodily functions. While they do direct our attention to this higher reality which is part of each moment, that might not necessarily be the “reason” behind this class of commandments.

Additionally, each Mitzvah we perform has the potential effect of bringing us closer, more in harmony with The Creator. צוות, the root of מצוה, implies meeting, joining together, with the intention of doing something good (i.,e., to perform a mitzvah).

Many mitzvot, we’re taught, have as their primary function the manipulation and re-ordering of complex/abstract energetic/spiritual entities known as sefirot, an entire level of reality we actually know relatively nothing about. But because these actions which bring about these effects are mitzvot, this arranging and rearranging is apparently a vital part of our existence.

The fact is, not only can we not know all the reasons behind that small number of mitzvot we do, more or less, “understand”. My late rebbe (mentor), Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l, taught about Rabbinic enactments that for every reason the rabbis gave for one of these mitzvot, they withheld ten. I doubt he was speaking literally (a rigid 10:1 ratio), but was teaching that every action we take has uncountable unknowable, fundamental and systemic repercussions. The complex dance of each of our lifetimes of actions, weaving toether with those of everyone else, constitute a more reasonable description of Tikkn Olam, the true correction of all Creation and Reality as embedded by God in His Creation of this world (as opposed to what any individual human or group of humans, no matter how intelligent and/or well-meaning they might be).

When returning our consciousnesses to our more practical, day-to-day operational mode and face a system that presents us with a mitzvah, with a mandated action to take, it’s important, or at least vitalizing and empowering to at least glimpse the seeming-infinite array of effects we’re bringing into being, it’s also important to remember what is, perhaps, the strongest reason why we should not merely comply, but, ideally, enthusiastically throw ourselves into this particular action.

This is because each of us, alone, separate and with only limited power is able to fulfill The Creator’s wish. We can reciprocate God’s love by making it our highest desire to please our Beloved just because he asked.

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Judaism Of The Future

To my dear student,
Just to clarify, I want to say that I agree with you, that what we see today, both in Israel and the Diaspora as “orthodox” Judaism is not what I see in our future. I also hasten to add that I don’t think the vast stretch of progressive Judaism, Conservative/Traditional/Masorati, nor Chassidic/neo-Chassdic will have much relevance in the future, although all will have some voice. 
The main shortcoming I find in all of these is that their slavishly devotional to a romanticized past or reject any of the insights Judaism has brought us through the ages.
I’m not saying it as a cop-out that I have no idea what it will be—I think it has to emerge. I think it will be focused on the Land of Israel, not as a matter of turf, but as our native soil where we need to be, in general, to survive in order to carry on our responsibilities. I don’t think our emotional well-being, while quite possible a side product, is a real goal. Likewise, we’ve got enough of our own problems, most  self-made, which need to be worked through, not leaving us time to take care of the rest of the world’s religions—I think they each have the capabilities to redeem themselves.
I strongly believe that our duties will be centered around Torah and Mitzvot, even if I have no real idea what that will look like in the future. I am pretty sure that we’ve not been brought into this millennium and century in order to create a replica of 1800’s Eastern Europe, nor eighteenth century North Africa.
I’m vitally excited by the prospect of being open of the searchers and explorers, but have little or no hope that “the truth” will be discovered in my lifetime.
We have been given an amazing set of tools (Torah, integrating Written and Oral) which might be incomplete and which might not have come with a very good beginners guide.
I begin every day meaning “Modeh Ani” with my full heart for the privilege of my front-row seat.
Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Harry Zeitlin

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Deepest Perception Only Available in One Place

It goes without saying, M’lo Kol Ha’Aretz Kvodo, that The Creator fills the entire universe with His Presence. However, our ability as humans to experience that phenomenon is not uniformly distributed. As Jews, our ability will run much better in Eretz Yisrael, The Holy Land, than anywhere else on earth. And within Eretz Yisrael there are variations, a veritable hierarchy, as described in one of the oldest Mishnayot (early formulation of the Infinite, Oral Torah) in the fifth Mishna of the fourth Perek chapter, of Berachoth. (Berachoth, Blessings, is the first topic of the entire Talmud.) It says that if you’re riding on your donkey at the moment one can first begin to recite the Sh’ma, (The moment the edge of of the sun peeks over the horizon, illuminating the entire world),one should get off the donkey, stand next to it, facing Jerusalem, our holy city, and recite. If, however, the trail is too steep and dangerous,  or if there is no one who might be able to hold your donkey for you while you focus your heart and mind elsewhere, you should, at least, while continue riding, try to turn your head so you face Jerusalem. If the trail is too dangerous for that, you should at least “incline your heart”, focus you spiritual desire, on the Holy of Holies, that central chamber of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, wherein resided the Ark of the Covenant, containing the God-Crafted tablets of the Ten Commandments, i.e, the most specific interface of God and Man. This same spiritual “ladder”, beginning in Eretz Yisrael, continuing to Yerushalayim, Holy Jerusalem, the Holy Temple, Bet HaMikdash, Bet Kodesh HaKadoshim, the very Holy of Holies, focusing on the space between the two Keruvim, Golden Angels molded to the Ark’s very cover.

The deepest part of this journey is not even available to the vast majority of humanity, let along of the Jewish People. Rather, on the Kohain Gadol, High Priest, is momentarily allowed inside there for the few moments it takes him to carry out the details of his sacrificial duties at the culmination of holiness during the Yom Kippur service, one time a year.

As I said, the largest portion of these holy insights and perceptions elude the vast majority of our people, of all people, even if we were fully observant, immensely learned, loving and spiritual at each moment, let alone for the rest of us…..

But one higher level of consciousness is, indeed, accessible to almost every Jew who at least sets foot in the Holy Land. I, at least, find it a recurring experience.

The Meor Eynayim, Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski, as talmid to the Ba’al Shem Tov, himself the founder/innovator of Chassidism, as well as the Maggid of Mezzeritch, another foundational innovator of Chassidic thought, founded the Chernobler Chassidic Dynasty and along with his emphasis on special melodies and meditations to achieve high levels of awareness and compassion, emphasized the teaching that while we all do what we do on the surface of our lives, what we’re really about is searching for those specific Holy Sparks, Netzutzot HaKodesh, exclusively relevant to our individual souls. As they were scattered about Creation, our job is to resurrect them to their highest, most appropriate place in the spiritual world. This mystical description is what traditionally we have called Tikkun Olam (in contrast to social action which might in many cases be appropriate, but doesn’t carry with it the stamp of ultimate holiness if often claims to). Rather, we assume that absolutely everything God Created in the universe is absolutely necessary for us to combine into the perfect world. Restoring those displaced sparks of pure, but too-often distorted energy, repairing them before we replace them, is a spiritualist/Kabbalistic description of how we partner with The Creator to complete His Creation into the perfect state first intended.

Anyhow, the Meor Eynaim writes that as we go about our everyday lives, wondering why we’re brought here and there, wfy we find ourselves engaged with certain people in also sorts of unexpected locales, it’s specifically because these Netzutzot specifically assigned to our souls (and thus those to which we each have the precise key) are there.

This is the phenomenon I so often experience almost every normal day in Jerusalem. When I find myself at, say a random bus stop with people I’ve never seen before, I often find myself in conversation with them, or observing their interactions with others, with the sense of great epiphany. Yes, it seems silly and pretentious to find a moment at a bus stop, at line at a cashier’s, or even in deep Torah study to have such an intense and otherwise inexplicable buzz, a sense of being in just the right place in just the exact moment…. I’ve had my own experience confirmed over the years by many friends as I talk about it with them…. It’s not so much an achievement of me and my training or accomplishments, as a product of place, the Holy Land.

Even walking four cubits in the Holy Land, we’re taught, brings us the merit of Eternal Life. Every moment is filled with opportunity.

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One Plus One Equals One: The Same But Different, Comprising All

Increasingly, over the last twenty-five years (yes, Oslo), the Jewish Communities in Israel and those in the United States seem to have less and less in common. Burning questions in Israel concern the necessary and in-progress transformation of Halacha, and let’s remember that in addition to Jewish Law, it really means Jewish daily/weekly/monthly/yearly practice, from the Halacha of Galut (Exile/Diaspora) to a practice that which will usher in the millennia-longed-for age of Redemption.

Here we work to create the never-before-seen world-changing society, beginning with ourselves (the emphasis on individual halacha, re-calibrated for the new challenges, in order to empower and vitalize each of us to our highest potentials, but eventually inspiring others, as well, to live in perfect harmony with the deep structure of the Universe,  Ratzon HaShem, the Divine Will, the full potential of Creation.

In the Diaspora, we face an equally difficult task. How to, in rapidly changing times, guarantee the survival and continuity of the Jewish People, in what might long remain hostile circumstances. The battle is often how to fight/resist assimilation, boredom and a feeling of lack-of-purpose, just as much as it to survive violent antisemitism aimed, each generation, to wipe us off the face of the Earth

Diaspora Halacha will necessarily retain, at least to a certain degree, its “circle the wagons” style of separateness, challenging and painful as that might be when talk from Eretz Yisrael is of merging, joining together and breaking down the barriers which have kept us separate for so many generations. It seems this will be a time where boundaries will and won’t be necessary, depending on where/when you lived.

It has already become difficult, and seems likely to become ever more challenging, for our two communities to coexist, let alone to support and complement each other. For one thing, we here in Eretz Yisrael seem to project our Geula goals and values, a halachic revolution that hasn’t been prepared for there on those living in the Exile while those living in the Diaspora project their values on us, here.

In other words, the Haredi world of Chumrot (ritual stringencies in all halachic matters), a remnant of two thousand years of Galut survival actually distracts and distances us from what we should be doing. Similarly, the “progressive” priority of “Peace” at any Cost with our Muslim neighbors, shifts the focus entirely from what we, involved in the Torah and Mitzvot evolution, need to do. It ignores the very real “on-the-ground” fact that 95% of encounters here between Jews and Muslims are perfectly peaceful, pleasant and mutually productive (if only that fringe of politicians could find job=training for something less bothersome to the rest of us….). Simply, while eliminating the conflict that remains between Jews and Palestinians would be nice, we have higher priorities, as disappointing as that is experienced by many of our well-meaning brothers and sisters.

Chassidim recite a short passage from Zohar (Trumah 163-166), Kagavna, on Friday nights, just after Kabbalat Shabbat and just before Ma’ariv for Shabbat. In other words, just as we transform our reality and focus from the mundane, work-week to the elevated consciousness of Shabbat.

Before we go much farther, we need to point out a number of equivalences. As we just said, the higher realm is often associated with Shabbat, the mundane with the week. God, HaKodeshBaruchHu (or, in Armaic, Kudsho Brich Hi) with Shabbat , Am Yisrael (The Jewish People) with the week. The Jewish Community in Eretz Yisrael, Olam HaBa (the world to come), while the diaspora community(ies), to the work-week and Olam HaZeh. It’s vital to emphasize here that these do not represent rankings or value. Male is no better than female, upper than lower. Both are essential and it’s better to look at them as giving/receiving, the two “endpoints” of every relationship. As both become fully engaged and fully active, the universe approaches it’s intended state (sof ma-aseh b’machshava t’chila–the final, culminating state is identical to the goal as first conceived). Each stage along the way is absolutely needed to create the perfected world (which is our privilege as Am Segula, a chosen people, to partner with The Creator.)

Back to Kagavna, we describe the King taking his throne, the highest energies entering our “real” world of physicality and material, the merging of pure spiritual into the fully manifest, i.e. the transition to Shabbat at it’s highest experience. We learn that the mysterious Unification that takes place in the highest reaches is exactly as we unify in our realm, with One receiving One and remaining One.

Can you imagine a deeper description of all realms, for our example the current realm of Am Yisrael still living in the diaspora, trying to organize and unify and make sense of all the many contradictions within it to somehow become mutually supporting and loving itself in a way that it can possibly accept the unification with and complete love from the world of AM Yisrael, currently living in Eretz Yisrsael, in all our incompletion and imperfection, trying to discover/create/collaborate in the highest possible form of Mitzva, Mitzva from tzevet, to group or bind together.

Imagine our Friday preparation in this material world  as working to develop our Olam HaZeh to its highest level of unified harmony in order to be able to accept Olam HaBah, likewise refined to it’s highest degree, blending its perfect One with the perfect One of this world within the Absolute Perfection of The One, HaKodesh Baruch Hu. This sounds an immense improvement over merely making sure the cholent is cooking, lights set up for Shabbat and that we haven’t run out of wine.

Likewise, the goal of preserving Jewish practice in the Diaspora at this point in time might well have transformed from a defensive “circling the wagons”, a rejection of everything and everyone not already familiar (and easy), but rather beginning the process of gathering the Netzutzot HaKodesh, all those sparks of ultimate holiness which, over time, have become separated from our people but whose re-engagement is absolutely necessary to the ultimate goal. Rather than make Judaism difficult and forbidden, we need to lovingly invite the reunion and re-integration of all those who have become lost over the millennia.

Similarly, here in Israel, where, for the first time in two millennia we are both the numerical majority, but also enjoying the responsibilities and  freedom of sovereignty over our lives and land, we look forward to a Judaism, a world of Halacha and Tefilla all trying to encompass the totality of being rather than merely the shadows and foundations of what was.

Describing the Psalm we recite on Shabbat, we declare, On Shabbat they would say A Meditative Song for the Day of Shabbat, a Meditative Song for the advancing future, to a time when it is always Shabbat…..When the Universe and Everything comprising it and contained in it is unified in perfect harmony.

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