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!
RebZ

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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Short Thoughts As The Chaggim End For This Year

1) Avot 2:4 tells us to make God’s Will into our will, in other words,to subjugate our person agenda to God’s so that he will come to make our will His Will.

Politics, entertainment, sports and celebrities are now on a 24/7 news cycle throughout most of the world. You won’t miss anything or fall behind if you unplug for just these few days. But the experience of each Chag, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, as they occur once each year, are once-in-a-lifetime events and opportunities.

It wasn’t that many years ago that Sandy Koufax made every American Jew(ish boy, at least) proud by refusing to pitch the first game of the World Series.

2) Of course, the Torah, in it’s perfect completeness, is never-changing. Except that it does change, especially in terms of the Oral Tradition, which is added to everything that went before each time it is learnt.

Perhaps we can, without causing too much damage, imagine a different ending to tonight’s (Simchat Torah) reading. Perhaps, instead of a tear-filled goodbye to Am Yisrael, as they prepare to enter The Land, led by Yehoshua Bin Nun, this time it’s Moshe Rabbenu himself, having never lost patience with the Jewish People and disobeyed the Creator, but who had year after year after year finally perfected himself. And we, Am Yisrael, would have followed him in, settling our land completely as it was originally intended at Creation, without the following thousands of years of war. Rather we would have brought this land, and through it, all the earth, to the Perfection The Creator originally intended.

Moadim l’Simcha

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How Does a Sukkah Bring Happiness?

The primary Mitzvah  of Sukkot is, simply, to live inside a Sukkah for a week to eat all our meals there, to even sleep there, weather permitting, to entertain guest there and, of course, to study Torah and also, perhaps, to sign and make music, within it’s holy space.

We also commanded, separately, simply to be happy. V’samachta b’Chagecha, and you will rejoice in your festival.

This year (along with last year) marks the only two in more than forty years that I’ve not had my own Sukkah and I admit it feels strange. Of course, I can fulfill the technical requirements of eating certain food categories in the many sukkot erected by neighborhood restaurants, by welcoming neighbors, schools and synagogues and others. I’m well aware, certainly, that this is one of many “side benefits” of living in Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, both this year and last, of the connection between Sukkah and Simcha (happiness). Does  the/a path to happiness necessarily travel through a Sukkah? What, of course, of the rest of the year? Does reducing the time spent in the Sukkah reduce one’s joy? Is happiness open to me at all during this week?

The fact is, however, that I’ve often found myself bursting with joy this past week, and for no real reason I can put my finger on. I’ve made no new special friends, gathered no new possessions, no new toys at all. I haven’t completed any great achievements strictly within these few specified days. I’ve probably had about my usual share of grumbles this week, certainly enough transportation and busing aggravations, but I still think if one could add up the minutes, you’d find my “smile time” significantly elevated. What could possibly be happening?

One thing, of course, is that living in Israel, living in Jerusalem, I’m surrounded by fellow Jews. But that’s no different the week of Sukkot than any other week. Of course, I’m literally surrounded by Sukkot this week, although that doesn’t mean that I’m continuously within a Sukkah, but, rather, that everywhere I look, literally, I see s Sukkah.

The Gemara, and I’m never sure of my exact references, just that I’ve “seen” it somewhere in my studies, in this case probably in Gemara Sukkot”, discusses the minimum size for a Sukkah to be kosher and says that it needs to be big enough for an average person to put his head and shoulders and part of his upper body into. It then brings us one of the most beautiful images I know within our tradition. We’re invited to imagine the entire Jewish people standing single-file in line, each one taking a turn to put his head and shoulders into this tiniest of kosher Sukkot, eating something (probably especially tasty) and saying a bracha of thanks. One-by-one, this theoretical Sukkah will contain all of Am Yisrael, the entirely of the Jewish People, each of us in a heightened awareness of The Creator.

And, perhaps, that is just the magic of a Sukkah, that each Sukkah becomes this ideal Sukkah, that every time we enter a Sukkah we surround ourselves with the entirely of the Jewish People, that every time we see a Sukkah, we see every Jew throughout our history, in all our beautiful individuality and diversity, each contributing what only we can contribute to the ultimate wholeness and integrity of God’s Created and our perfected, universe.

I can’t think of anything more joyous.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim l’Simcha!

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Be Happy….Or Else!

Z’man Simchateynu is upon us. Yes, it’s almost Sukkot, The Time of our Joy, and we are commanded, V’Semachta b’Chagecha V’Hayita Af Sameach! Rejoice in your festival and be especially happy.

I don’t know about you, but when “commanded” to be just about anything, my first impulse is to resist and do the opposite. How can we be expected to turn happiness on and off at command? The Torah itself has something to say about this through the rabbinic tradition to read Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, on the intermediate Shabbat of this festival, perhaps warning us, “Just not too happy”!

Traditionally, we’re supposed to be so relieved that we lived through Yom Kippur, where every living being is judged either to have yet another year to live or, chas v’shalom, to die. I’ll grant that there are some within our community of Jews who really are so holy as to deeply and intimately feel their life is on the line this time ever year, but it’s always been a stretch for me. And how does this focus on failure and destruction, just a few days ago, bring us to happiness? One would have to enter Yom Kippur, with an overwhelming sense of guilt and self-hate in order to truly feel that, sitting in the Sukkah (and this is speaking ideally in term of weather–I recently spent almost thirty years in Seattle where, ever year putting up the Sukkah was an exercise in futility because you just knew that it would start pouring rain, a storm pre-programmed to last most of the following eight days. So, in more observant circles, the men (women, while not prohibited or excluded from the Mitzvah, nevertheless aren’t commanded to eat all their meals (and possibly to sleep) in the Sukkah) would bundle up in rain gear, run through the mud in the back yard, to say a very very quick Kiddush (the inaugural blessing of the  chag), down a mouthful of wine, and run back into the warm dry house for the real festival meal. Unless you have a serious appreciation for the absurd, this ritual is unlikely to inspire you to collapse in laughter or any other expression of happiness.

I remember from many years ago Rabbi B.C.Shloime Twerski, zt”l, teaching that Simchat Yom Tov, the commandment to be happy on these festival days, to be “the hardest one in the book”. When he explained it that time, he was focusing on the requirement to not allow oneself to become even the slightest bit angry, annoyed or have any other negative emotion, for a full 24 (or 48 in the diaspora) hours. When you even briefly contemplate this, you realize what a daunting task it is!

Another theme that the Rabbi emphasized is one we recite every Shabbat  and Chag morning, “Sur meRah v’Oseh Tov” (from Psalm 34, part of the extended Psalms reading we add on those special days). It means “Turn Away From Evil And Do Good”, in other words, avoid the negative is important, but the real lesson Torah is teaching us through its many mitzvot is that the real goal is to create a positive and tangible Good in this world. So, merely avoiding anger and frustration (maybe a deep reason behind the prohibition from driving a car and Shabbat and Chag), while an essential first step, is far from the real goal.

Honestly, I wish I could wrap up this lesson with a brilliant insight on how to achieve happiness. I’d become famous and maybe even rich (would either of those suffice to make me, or anyone else, happy?). Perhaps good first step, one I’m working with on myself, is to contemplate one of the deepest concepts in Judaism, “Everything that God Creates, he Creates for His Glory/Honor”. And what could God’s “Honor” or “Glory” possibly be other than the fulfillment of His purpose in Creation, that there be a perfect world, perfected not by His arbitrary decree, but by our willing, loving participation in fixing the world through the Torah  and Mitzvot, even, or especially, the incomprehensible ones such as seeming impossible task of being truly happy.

The best I can recommend is to spend the time among people you love.

Moadim l’Simcha!

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