Friday, June 4, 2010

You Gotta Love Me!

“You should love the Lord Your God,” we are told in the second paragraph of Shema. But there is an obvious problem with this passage: how can love be commanded?

Imagine a young couple on their first date, with all their anxious smiles and nervous toe-tapping. Just before they part ways, the young man tells the woman, “You gotta love me!” Suddenly, this budding relationship comes to a screeching halt.

Love is something that is earned through time, trust, and commitment. It is not something that can be given through demands. So how can Hashem command us to love?

Rav Kook (Musar Avicha, Ahava 4) teaches that a blazing flame of love for Hashem is constantly burning in the soul, giving pleasantness and sweetness that no words can describe.

If this is so, then why don’t we experience these intense feelings all the time (or for some, at all)?

He teaches that we disconnect ourselves from this light through an unbalanced relationship with our world. We weigh ourselves down with futile contemplations, and we prioritize the physical over the needs of the spirit. Such a lifestyle is in complete opposition to the nature of the soul.

According to Rav Kook, the commandment to love Hashem is not a directive to stir up an appropriate emotional response. It is a dictate to peel away the layers of darkness that are masking the light that is constantly shining. It is returning to our natural state of balance between body and soul, which is a place of experiencing constant love for Hashem.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oh Hashem, Where Aren’t You?

Using only our physical senses, the presence of Hashem can be painfully elusive. The world can sometimes seem void of a caring, compassionate personal God. In this world filled with pain and brokenness, one could even ask the question, “Where is Hashem?”

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Chassidic work Tanya explains that no place is void of Hashem. The passage in the Torah, “Ain od milvado” should not be translated as, “There are no other Gods,” but rather, “There is nothing other than God” (Sha’ar HaYichud v’HaEmuna).

He teaches that the existence of the world is a greater miracle than the splitting of the Red Sea. The splitting of the sea requires a force to oppose the force of nature; but Hashem is the cause behind all nature, and is constantly willing all of life into existence. If Hashem was not involved in this constant mode of creation, then the world would return to its pre-creation state, i.e., absolute nothingness. Even an inanimate object such as a rock has a life force that Hashem is creating anew every moment.

From this perspective, the question is not, Hashem, where are you, but rather, Hashem where aren’t you? The answer is that Hashem is intimately involved with every aspect of existence in every moment. Every person and every thing that we see is constantly being created by a loving God. Our work is to open our hearts to this reality that eludes our physical sight. The more we integrate this perception into our thoughts and actions, the closer we can feel to Hashem and Hashem’s creation.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Celebrating The Two Torahs

As I read through the passages that detail the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai, I find myself experiencing Hashem’s revelation as an ominous, commanding voice, insisting on obedience.

This image may not capture the entire picture of the giving of the Torah.

Our sages teach that the tablets that Moshe received were six handbreadths wide by six handbreadths long by three handbreadths deep. At the giving of the Torah, Hashem held on to two handbreadths, Moshe held on to two handbreadths, and there were two left in the middle.

The Maharal of Prague asks why there needed to be two handbreadths in the middle; why couldn’t there be two in Moshe’s hand and two in Hashem’s hand? He answers that if that were the case, it would have implied that the Torah has two components: what Hashem decreed, and what Moshe received. But this does not express the most essential element of the Torah: the two handbreadths in the middle represent the place of relationship.

These two handbreadths represent the give and take. The Torah is not only a fixed document where Hashem acts as the omnipotent commander, but rather the Torah represents an unfolding relationship that expresses a living dialogue. This Torah is called the Oral Torah, and is as essential as the fixed letters on the tablets.

As we receive the Torah anew on Shavuot, we need to not only experience the dramatic revelation of the Written Torah, but we must also seek out the active relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people, which thrives in our study halls and in our silent contemplation.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Jerusalem: A Taste of What’s to Come

Every year when Jerusalem Day starts to approach, I think back on my first Jerusalem Day experience. There were thousands of people, young and old, marching around the Old City walls, flatbeds filled children all waving Israeli flags, vans with massive speakers tied to the roof blasting festive music. In the place where Jordanian snipers once took aim, Israeli solders stood and waved down to the crowds.

The climax was walking through Lion’s Gate, the same path the Israeli paratroopers took when recapturing the Temple Mount. I was filled with humility and euphoria as I looked upon the Temple Mount, the place of the binding of Yitzhak, and the place where the two Temples once stood.

Despite the significance of Jerusalem, the Torah doesn’t mention its name specifically; it is always referred to by Hashem as “the place that I will show you.”

Rav Shlomo Aviner, the Chief Rabbi of Beit El, asks in his book Tal Hermon why the focal point of the Jewish people is only mentioned in hints. He answers that the most important matters cannot be revealed at the outset. There are some things so awesome that we can only understand them as we partake in the journey. Even if it was revealed at the beginning, we would not comprehend its significance. Jerusalem is a place of such magnitude that the story of the Jewish people had to unfold until its greater context could be revealed and understood.

It seems to me that Jerusalem today represents the idea of the constant unfolding process. The path of the Jewish people is intrinsically connected to Jerusalem; though we still are not exactly sure how the story will unfold, and there will be many detours along the way, we know that our story’s climax will occur within the walls of Jerusalem. This year as the parade marches by the Temple Mount, but not on it, we will again get a taste of what is to come amidst the realization that we are not yet there.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yom Ha’atzmaut: Longing for More than Freedom

As my wife and I looked out our back window this evening and enjoyed a substantial fireworks display showering the Judean Hills with color and light, I felt overcome with gratitude. What an incredible gift the State of Israel is, and what indescribable merit we have to live here and raise our family here.

The haunting tune to Hatikva pops into my head, and I start to sing the last line: “to be a free nation in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

They are moving, but I find them unsatisfying. The 3,500 year journey of the Jewish people was never about freedom for freedom’s sake. We always stood for greater values: to be a light to the nations, to prepare the world for the presence of God.

The miraculous nature of our unfathomable return to our homeland should not make us forget the greater purpose of the Land of Israel. Rabbi Judah HaLevi in his seminal work The Kuzari uses the metaphor of a grapevine and vineyard to describe the unique nature of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

The grapevine represents the people of Israel, a unique nation with spiritual gifts to contribute to the world. The vineyard is the Land of Israel, and is the only ground that can fully actualize the potential of these grapes. True, we can survive in a hothouse, i.e., exile, but we can never fully actualize our spiritual potential there. We can never be truly close to Hashem in exile.

As I sit on the hilltop of my ancestors this evening, I can’t help but feel that this gift of freedom given to the Jewish people after 2,000 years must have a greater purpose. There are many free nations in the world, but we must look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a nation, and ask, now that we are planted back in our home soil: what are the real crops that we should produce and give to the world? According to our tradition, the fruits of our labor must focus on bringing us and the world truly closer to Hashem.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Contemplating Hashem with Wonder

The midrash states in the name of Rabbi Nechemia that just as Moshe acted towards Hashem with temimut (naiveté or simplicity) so too Hashem acted towards Moshe with temimut. From where do we see this? From the story of the burning bush, where Moshe asks, “Why does this bush not burn up?” Hashem then calls out from the bush, “it is because my presence is found within it” (Vayikra Rabbah, Parshat Shmini, Chapter 11).

I heard an explanation of this midrash as follows: Moshe’s question is almost childlike, filled with a state of wonder and innocence. “How can this be?” he asks simply. Hashem answers Moshe’s question: “It is not consumed because I am in it.”

I can imagine a similar unassuming exchange between a parent and a curious child.
“Abba, what makes an ant move?”
“Hashem gives him his life just like Hashem gives life to you and me.”

Though the exchange is one of innocence and simplicity, it resonates with tremendous preciousness and depth. The notion that Hashem is the One who fills all of existence, and Hashem is constantly bestowing life on all of creation is a matter of tremendous complexity. The philosophical issues surrounding such statements, and the understanding of how such a relationship occurs has fascinated sages throughout the centuries, and has filled libraries with its discussion.

Yet simple words can fill us with a deep consciousness beyond the level of logic and complexity. At the most basic level there is nothing other than Hashem. As important as it is to understand the depth of that statement with the intellectual abilities that Hashem has granted us, it is equally important to contemplate with childlike simplicity that Hashem simply is.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sefirat HaOmer: Counting Up to Mt. Sinai

The first evening after the Seder Night, the Torah presents us with the following mitzvah:

“And you should count for yourselves from the day after Passover, from the day that you will bring the barley offering (omer in Hebrew), count seven complete weeks, until after the seventh week, count fifty days” (Vayikra 23:15).

From this passage we learn two mitzvot: the first is the priestly obligation to bring a special barley offering in the Temple each evening beginning from the sixteenth of the month of Nissan for fifty consecutive days, until the holiday of Shavuot.

The second is a seemingly bizarre mitzvah, called Sefirat HaOmer, or the Counting of the Barley Offering. Every Jew is told to count each day that the barley offering is consumed on the Temple altar. Even though we have no Temple to offer sacrifices today, we still count at the end of the evening prayer service, along with a special blessing made in conjunction with the counting, till Shavuot fifty days later.

The meaning behind this mitzvah of counting is not revealed in the passage. One midrash (quoted in a respona of the Rashbah) explains it as follows:

“When Moses told the Nation of Israel that they were going to serve Hashem on Mount Sinai, the Nation responded, ‘Moses our Teacher, when is this going to happen?’ He answered them, ‘Fifty days from now.’ Afterwards, each person counted the days to himself (until the time of serving Hashem at Mount Sinai). Therefore, the Sages set as a custom that each Jew should count the fifty days for himself.”

The midrash illustrates the great longing that the Nation felt after being told of the opportunity to serve Hashem. There was a deep anticipation, almost an obsession, with Mount Sinai, so much so that every day their longing grew stronger and stronger.

As we count the omer each evening, we also can experience this sense of longing. The anticipation for our personal receiving of the Torah on Shavuot can inspire our daily rituals, and motivate new goals in personal and character growth. These days leading up to Shavuot are auspicious times for this type of work, and we should attempt to maximize them with focus and excitement.