Friday, December 25, 2009
After the war, Sarah, still only a young adult, somehow made it to America on her own. She never found conclusive evidence for the deaths of her family, including her beloved brother Yaakov. Many years passed, and no new information surfaced; she had no reason but to assume the worst.
Thirty years later, the phone rang. She said hello, but there was only silence. She said hello again, and still silence. Then she heard two words that sent a chill through her body: “It’s Yaakov.”
I don’t remember how Yaakov made it to America, or how he had survived the war and the years after, but I’m reminded of this haunting story every year when we read the Torah portion Vayigash.
The climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers reaches its momentous peak with possibly the two most evocative words in the entire Torah: Ani Yosef, I am Yosef.
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as the Ishbitzer, one of our great Polish Chasidic sages, gives us a broader insight into the impact contained within these two words. He explains that the story of Yosef and his brothers is the model for the future redemption of the Jewish people.
From the brothers’ perspective, their journey has gone completely awry. Binyamin has been taken captive by an Egyptian ruler for a crime he did not commit, and the consequences for returning without him are too great to bear. After hearing the news, their father Ya’akov would be dead to the world. The brothers had no hope in sight.
Yet Yehuda’s plea to take him as a servant instead of Binyamin opened Yosef’s heart: “I am Yosef,” he cried out. It was not you, but God who sent me here to provide for my father and for our family. Suddenly, salvation arrived from the very source of their impending tragedy.
Everything changed the moment Yosef revealed himself. Yet the only real transformation was the perspective of the brothers. Salvation arrived through a shift in consciousness.
Whether the redemption that we’re searching for is big or small, we can find solace in the story of Yosef and his brothers – that salvation arrives in the blink of an eye, and from the most surprising of places.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Hanukkah, unlike the other Jewish holidays, is embraced in all of its particulars in a way that no other holiday is. One could cynically argue that the Western consumer culture of the holiday season in December gives Hanukkah extra credence. But I believe there is more to the matter.
Netivot Shalom, a recent Chasidic work written by the previous rebbe of Slonim, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovski, offers a different answer. He points out a unique halacha about the placement of the Hanukkah candles. As opposed to Shabbat candles, which should be placed no lower than 10 handbreadths above the ground, Hanukkah candles ideally should be placed above 3 and lower than 10 handbreadths from the ground.
What is the significance of placing Hanukkah candles in such a low place?
The decrees made by the Greeks were a part of a spiritual war waged against Israel; under punishment of death they were not allowed to keep Shabbat, perform circumcision, sanctify the new moon, or learn Torah. Without their connection to mitzvot, the Jews fell to a destitute spiritual level. Yet even in this lowly state, void of mitzvot, Hashem saved them from the oppression and made a miracle in the Temple.
The holiday maintains this message. No matter how far a Jew is from observance-- even from Jewish identity-- still the lights of Hanukkah speak to him or her. There are no spiritual prerequisites to connect to these miracles. Just as it was then, so too now; it’s the holiday that reaches down and speaks to every Jew, and brings light to those places that are farthest from it.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
But Shabbat is much more than these experiences. Rav Avraham Danzig, an important Lithuanian scholar in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, writes in his well-known halachic work Chayei Adam an important introduction to the laws of Shabbat. The commandment to remember Shabbat does not only apply on Shabbat itself; we are commanded to remember Shabbat every day.
This relates to the story of Shammai in the Tractate Beitza; when he would walk through the marketplace and find an especially nice item, he would purchase it and say, “This is special for Shabbat.”
Additionally, when we count the days of the week in Hebrew, on Sunday we say, Hayom yom rishon l’Shabbat, this is the first day of Shabbat. Shabbat is mentioned every day because every day draws blessing from it. The first three days of the week draw from the Shabbat that has just passed, and the last three days of the week draw from the coming Shabbat.
Shabbat is not a once-a-week event, but rather a consciousness that is meant to instill each and every day with a proper perspective. Shabbat is the foundation of faith with which God created the world; yet during the six days, we can lose focus of the Source of our creative energy. It’s easy to keep one’s priorities straight sitting at a table filled with family, food, and a long morning in shul. But remembering that Hashem is at the center of our lives on a Tuesday night when one is overstressed, underpaid, and lacking sleep is not as easy. Finding Shabbat hidden in each day means seeing Hashem as the Creator of the World in each moment, whether it is filled with success or with challenge.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
On one hand, what an incredible spiritual sensitivity our sages had in enacting a system where one must constantly take pause in order to connect with one’s Creator.
On the other hand, what a nearly impossible task to recite the same words each day, three times a day, and attempt to make the experience meaningful!
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in his introduction to his commentary to the prayer book, sees prayer through a much broader lens. He writes the following:
“True prayer only comes through the awareness that the soul is always praying. Is it not soaring and nestling with its beloved (Hashem) in a constant union? When one actually stands in prayer, the constant soulful prayer is revealed to the world.” (Olot HaReiya, Inyanei Tefilla Bet)
According to Rav Kook, the assumption that a Jew prays three times a day is incorrect. We are always engaged in prayer, though we may not realize it. On an inner level our soul is constantly reaching out towards its Creator, desiring true good for itself, for the Jewish people, and for the entire world. Standing in prayer and speaking the words instituted by our sages (as well as adding our own prayers) gives a framework for the small, still voice in our hearts to be actualized.
The real challenge of prayer, then, is not only saying the words with feeling, but learning to listen to the quiet whispers of our soul. When we reach greater awareness of the prayers in the recesses of our hearts, there is no doubt that the experience will be as our sages had in mind, a vehicle for the expression of our most noble desires.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
When reading the passage in Hebrew, one can’t miss the similarity between the word for man, adam, and the word for ground or soil, adama. What does the etymological similarity of dirt and man teach us about the nature of the human being?
It cannot mean that man is a lowly being, worthy of being trampled upon, inherently unrefined, or filled with sin. Man is the crown jewel of all creation, as we see again and again in the creation story. He is put in charge of all the earth’s creatures; he is also told to work the garden and guard it.
The Maharal of Prague gives an important explanation for the connection between adam and adama. The uniqueness of the human is that he was not created fully actualized. In fact, unlike every other living species, he can never reach absolute completion. The human being exists in a constant state of unearthing potential.
This is why we are called adam, because dirt is that entity that actualizes potential. Without dirt, a redwood seed can never grow into a giant tree. The ground is a symbol for actualizing potential. This is the unique nature of the human; always in process, able to become more whole, but never fully arriving (at least in the physical world).
There are two sides to this; true, we are in our essence lacking, and can never fully reach perfection. But on the other hand, we have unlimited potential. Being truly alive means being connected to the unique nature of the human being: the ability to constantly grow. We cannot rest with our past accomplishments, no matter how great, nor can we deny the possibility of bettering ourselves; we are charged by our Creator to unleash the unlimited potential hidden inside all of us through the path of Torah and mitzvot.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
“(God says) let it be that they leave me, but my Torah they should observe, since the light that is in it will return them to good” (Midrash Eicha).
At first glance, this is a very difficult statement. What good is observing the Torah if there is no connection to God? Isn’t the entire point to serve God through the Torah?
Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the great eighteenth century thinker and Kabbalist, explains the Midrash. If a Jew is entrenched in an immoral lifestyle, yet maintained a connection to learning Torah, slowly it would start to affect his actions.
This is based on the unique nature of the Torah as the most refined manifestation of God’s presence in the world. The crass person who learns Torah cannot help but be affected by the light contained inside it, and will ultimately return to a relationship with God.
All the more so this holds true for those of us in the process of returning to God. The more we learn Torah with the awareness that we are interacting with our Creator, the more intimate the relationship becomes. This is part of the uniqueness of the mitzvah of learning Torah.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
From where did the rule originate that inside such a massive storehouse of knowledge one must maintain absolute silence?
Anyone who walks into a Beit Midrash (House of Study) will see a completely different scene. People are arguing, hands are waving; others are standing, rocking in their chairs in front of a Talmud, or pacing around the room.
Why is the Beit Midrash such a raucous scene?
A fitting insight comes from the Maharal of Prague. He gives an interpretation of the first blessing over the Torah, in which we say la’asok b’divrei Torah, to involve one’s self with the words of Torah. The language of the blessing is unusual; it would have been much more straightforward for our sages to compose the blessing as “to learn the words of Torah.”
The formulation of the blessing teaches us how the Torah should be learned. In almost all cases after a blessing is said, the corresponding mitzvah action follows immediately. So in order to fulfill the mitzvah of learning Torah, there must also be an action. Therefore, simply contemplating the words of Torah may not fulfill the mitzvah—we must speak the words. The act of dialogue is the mitzvah of learning Torah.
Dialogue allows for a deep engagement with the text, as well as with the person with whom we are learning. The Beit Midrash, as opposed to the library, is a place where the texts are tangibly alive, not a book moratorium where texts must rest in peace. The discussions and arguments illustrate the passion that we have for God’s word, and allow for their understanding on the deepest level.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
A simple reading of the flood story could lead to a simple conclusion: Noach was good, and the rest of the world was evil. God decided to destroy the evil and start over with the good. Let’s take this invitation to look at the story from a different perspective.
Rav Zadok HaCohen from Lublin quotes a fascinating Zohar: “At the time of the flood they were fitting to receive the Torah.” In other words, just as the Nation of Israel was fitting to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the world at the time of Noach was fitting to receive the Torah.
But the Torah tells us that the world was despicable in the eyes of God, filled with theft and illicit sexual behavior. These were the people fitting to receive the Torah, God’s most precious gift to the world?
Rav Zadok explains that a moment of revelation is a time of tremendous opportunity; there is possibility for glorious triumph, or bitter failure. It’s all a question of how one directs the raw energy.
The generation of the flood lived in a time of revelation. There was raw energy waiting to be harnessed; the direction to which that revelation would unfold was in their hands.
As the rain started to fall, their fate was not sealed. The initial drops could have been the rain of sustenance, not flood waters. The Torah, as symbolized by water, could have provided existence to the world, as we are taught that the Torah sustains existence, and is the purpose for existence.
However, we are also taught that if it were not for the Torah, the heavens and the Earth would cease to exist. The destructive nature of the world was not open to receiving the Torah. So the waters that could have sustained the world instead destroyed it.
Not always do we harness the power of the moment of revelation. But Rav Zadok assures us that the fall is a preparation for the next big moment of potential. The failure of the generation of the flood laid the foundation for Avraham. He brought a different consciousness to the world, which ultimately resulted in the giving of the Torah.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Growing up as a Jew I always felt different than the other kids. In the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where I was the only Jew in my elementary school, I heard everything from playful teasing to out-and-out racial slurs from my classmates, and once even from a teacher.
In Hebrew school, being different meant experiencing horrible tragedies: the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, and of course the Holocaust. If being the chosen people meant undergoing tragedy, God could choose somebody else.
Only in my young adulthood, after learning more about Judaism than the tragedies we underwent, did I embrace this difference; yet still I still didn’t fully understand it.
One insight that struck me was from the Kabbalist and philosopher Rabbi Yehuda Lowe of Prague, known as the Maharal. He explains that we have a unique relationship with God, a parent-child relationship. With our chosenness comes greater expectations, and with that greater punishment. But there is also greater consolation. This all stems from an essential difference in our nature.
One way of understanding this point is that the Jewish Nation is not bound by the laws of history. No nation has ever left its land for 2000 years (much less even a fraction of that), maintained its identity, and then returned home. The establishment of the modern State of Israel as a Jewish State flies in the face of the laws of history. And its continuing success despite coming under constant attack testifies that Israel runs by a different set of rules.
This is only one expression of our unique identity, but it’s one that we should feel a sense of pride in. It doesn’t mean that we are better than other nations, only that we have a unique message to give to the world. Teaching the world about the oneness of God is not a simple mission; the stakes are high, but this is our special task.
And despite the pain that the Jewish people have faced and still face, maybe the State of Israel, with all its miracles, is the beginning of the consolation that we have been awaiting for so long.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
In fact that has happened, and in recent history certain scientists and thinkers have spent lots of time and energy trying to disprove the divinity of this text.
Some great minds have attempted to refute these claims through Bible codes or philosophical proofs. Personally, I find none of them convincing. But the question still stands: if the Torah is truly divine, then why isn’t it blatantly obvious?
For me, the conclusion that the Torah is a divine document came through asking the right questions.
The Torah is not a scientific treatise on the creation of the world, nor is it a history book meant to depict every detail from the beginning of creation. It may give us some insights into these topics, but that is not its purpose. Its primary objective is to answer existential questions about ethics, our ultimate purpose, and life’s deeper meaning.
In other words, the Torah is an answer to the question why, as opposed to the question how. Science can teach us plenty about how our world works; however, science is silent when asked why the world works the way it does.
Therefore, approaching the Torah requires that we must first and foremost recover the deeper questions about life. Once we have started to formulate them, we can begin to read the Torah through the proper lens. Only then can we start to sense the Torah’s divinity. And only through continued interaction and grappling with the text can we fully grasp its greatness.
Friday, July 10, 2009
When I reflect on my spiritual journey, I realize that it began before my immersion in traditional texts. It started while sitting behind an old wooden desk in Tallahassee, Florida, in my college apartment, writing in my journal. Though I couldn’t articulate it clearly then, the deeper my self-introspection, the closer I felt to God.
The burning search for meaning and truth is a Jewish tradition that dates back to Avraham. The midrash teaches that before Avraham heard the voice of God, he was a charismatic spiritual seeker traveling from place to place searching for answers.
According to the Chassidic master Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, also known as the Mei HaShiloach, God’s first message to Avraham is that he is looking in the wrong place. “Go to yourself,” God says. You are combing the physical realms, but if you really want to find me, look inside yourself. The more that you search yourself, the closer you will come to Me.
A deeper relationship with self is a deeper relationship with God. This is not to say that any one of us is God; however, each one of us is a unique facet of God’s infinite personality. The deeper we delve into ourselves, the more we sense that divine spark inside us.
“Go to the land that I will show you,” says God to Avraham. This is the Land of Israel, which is symbolic of constant process. It represents development that never reaches finality. God’s message to Avraham is: search yourself and you will find Me, but know that this inner journey has no end. Just as you can never reach absolute self-awareness, so too you can never fully reach the infinite place in your heart where God dwells.
When I walk out of a such a minyan, I can’t help but feel that the purpose was nothing more than fulfilling an obligation. Certainly doing any mitzvah is commendable, but from another perspective an essential component is missing.
Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen from Lublin, a Lithuanian-trained Talmudist-turned-Chasid, teaches that the essential part of prayer is the desire to pray.
We see in the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice, which like prayer is also called by the name “avodah” (work or practice), that the essence was not the sacrifice itself, but rather the desire to serve God. Sacrifice was a vehicle through which to bring one into the presence of God, but without a yearning for divine connection, the act is hollow.
So too with prayer; words void of feeling are like a body with no soul, and are nearly meaningless. God doesn’t want holy mumbling martyrs; Hashem wants our hearts.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
If God is perfect, why are we, God’s creations, so imperfect?
We expect a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and infinite to create beings that reflect some aspect of those qualities. Yet no one can claim even one of them. The divide between us and God appears too vast. Could such a God create something so imperfect? One could wonder if this Creator exists after all.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the eighteenth century Italian Kabbalist, teaches that God desires to bestow the best possible good. One might think that creating perfect human beings would satisfy that criteria.
But not so; the greatest good was creating humanity with imperfections, and then empowering us through Torah and mitzvot to fix them. This allows us to feel a sense of accomplishment for the work that we have done, as opposed to feelings of shame like a beggar who receives sustenance with no toil.
This can also allow us to accept our flaws, and the flaws of others. Those imperfect cracks are the places where God is most revealed. Those blemishes empower us to work on our character traits and our service to God, and it is through this work that we actualize our true potential.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
After an introduction to the intricacies of halacha (Jewish law) I was disturbed by several issues. First of all, traditional Judaism related to a mitzvah as an absolute requirement, not as a good deed as I had been taught in my Reform upbringing. This sounded very imposing.
Secondly, why must the halachic system dictate each and every daily activity? Where is the autonomy? And most importantly, where is the spirituality that I was seeking? Where was the God amidst all this halacha?
I found a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah Chapter 44) that helped me begin to formulate an answer to these issues.
The midrash asks: Does God really care if I do the ritual slaughter from the front of the neck or the back of the neck?
In other words, does God care about all the halachic hair-splitting found in the Talmud?
The midrash answers: The mitzvot were only given to refine us.
The mitzvot are not for God, but rather for us. They are a divinely orchestrated spiritual system designed to help us reach our maximum potential. Each mitzvah in its own unique way can move our consciousness from selfishness to selflessness, from craving to caring. Every aspect of life, even the most seemingly mundane acts, can become a tool for growth and connection.
This work is incumbent on all of us; we were created in order to better the world, not to destroy it. Halacha, from the word “to walk,” guides us on a path towards God’s ultimate desire for humanity. This is the path of Jewish spirituality.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
It wasn’t until I opened up “Aish Kodesh,” (Holy Fire) by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, that I was able to learn this message.
His insights into the infamous story of the scouts that we read in Parshat Shelach offer a powerful model for faith under duress.
The spies return from Canaan and give their report to the waiting nation: The people living there are too strong for us; we saw giants, and the walls of their city are too high!
Calev, himself a member of the scouts, gives a simple rebuttal: We can do it.
Asks the Rebbe: The spies had a logical concern about entering the land. Why didn’t Calev give a pointed response to their report, instead of just saying, “Let’s go”?
There are times when logic challenges faith. But the point at which no rational hope exists should not be the end of one’s faith; this is the time for its deepest expression. God is above the realm of natural law, and in a second our salvation can come. We cannot let our intellect barricade real faith.
This is Calev’s message to the nation: true, logically we are militarily outmatched; but this is not a time for intellectual calculations; this is a time to act on faith according to the word of God. We can do it.
The Rebbe’s words take a different tone when we consider them in the context of the death and destruction he faced. However, the message is one we can relate to in our daily lives. Logic should certainly be our guiding principle, yet there comes a point when we must recognize its limitations and embrace simple faith.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
The first time the Torah uses the word “love” in reference to a couple is in the story of Yitzhak and Rivkah. We learn that first Yitzhak and Rivkah were married, and then, only after marriage, does the text say that he loves her. But shouldn’t it have been the opposite? Doesn’t love precede marriage?
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, one of the Polish Chasidic Masters, explains regarding this verse that there are two types of love. The first type of love is that which is based on fulfilling one’s emotional or physical needs. That type of love is nothing more than self-love, and is bound to dissipate.
But there is a higher type of love: that which relates to marriage as a mitzvah. A mitzvah is an act that reveals G-d’s presence in the world. Yitzhak and Rivkah wanted their marriage to act as a vessel to achieve this exalted goal. The story records Yitzhak’s love for Rivkah after marriage to teach that their relationship was founded on this higher love, a love of mitzvah, and not self-fulfillment.
A relationship that places God at the center changes the entire dynamic; the couple does not ask, “What have you done for me lately?” but rather, “How can we bring the presence of Hashem into our home?” It is this type of love that the Torah outlines as a foundation for a successful marriage.
Though this paradigm is a difficult one, for me it serves as an ultimate goal. A marriage based on such high ideals, even if it never reaches them, is already a big step!
Monday, May 25, 2009
Since the day after Passover we have been counting toward Shavuot. So what’s the gift waiting for us at the end of the fifty days?
The beginning of The Ethics of the Fathers begins with a description of the transmission of the Torah: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai, and then passed it to Yehoshua…
The Maharal of Prague asks a question: why does it say that “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai”? Did he not receive it from God?
He answers that if the teaching had stated “Moshe received the Torah from God,” then we would have thought incorrectly that God bestowed wisdom only on Moshe. Really God is constantly bestowing wisdom on each and every one of us.
The learning of Torah is nothing short of God intimately bestowing his precious gift upon us. This is why we say the blessing over the Torah that God is the “giver of Torah;” God is constantly giving freely to whoever wants to receive.
On Shavuot we are not only celebrating the historic event of Moshe receiving the Torah, but also the gift of our own, personal, unique relationship with Torah and God, which is accessible in each moment.
Great news: an editor from the Arutz Sheva Israel National News website saw the blog and wants to host it on their website. I will still be posting here, but please check it out there starting later this week: www.israelnationalnews.com/Blogs/
Michael Kaye left a very interesting comment on the blog last week:
…Fire can also allow stiff things to bend and become moldable. And it can destroy. Without help, the Torah's fire can burn, wound and even scar a person or family.
Michael’s comment reminded me of a story. Dena and I were catching a ride home (OK, we were hitchhiking from Jerusalem, but it’s very common here!) and got a lift from a middle-aged man with long pe’os, a beard, and a large white kipah driving a beat-up white truck.
He was griping about something for a few minutes; my response was, “I hear.”
“I hear,” he yelled suddenly. “What do you mean, ‘I hear!?’” He then berated me for five minutes how the facility of sight was superior to that of hearing, bringing a few weak proofs from the Torah. I sat there praying to myself that we would get home soon.
He asked us where we wanted to get off; I told him to drop us off at the intersection and then we would walk the rest. He started screaming that Jews are from the seed of Avraham, who embodied kindness, and insisted that he would take us all the way home.
This was a holy Jew with too much fire. We need a burning desire for God and Torah to fuel our religious lives, but I agree with Michael that the fire needs to be properly contained.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
In high school I was in the drum line in the marching band. Our director Mr. Maxwell was always very strict during our after-school practices. “Do it again,” he would say, despite the thick humidity of the
In the Book of Devarim, the Torah calls itself a “consuming fire.” Why would it use such a destructive symbol? I heard from Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo in the name of the Katav ve'Hakabbalah that even though
What enabled one to have a deeper sense of revelation than the next? It was preparation. The idea is to make ourselves combustible, to ready ourselves for the fire, here symbolized as the Torah. The key to spiritual experience (or achieving any goal) is preparation.
The 49 days from Passover to Shavuot was that time of preparation for the Israelites in the desert. For us, leading up to Shavuot is a time to work on our character traits and try to shed bad habits. In this way we become more combustible to the holy fire of Torah, and can become a vehicle for its light.
First and foremost I plan to use this space to share ideas and thoughts that have inspired or challenged me. I hope they will have a similar effect on you.
I intend for Sparks from the Fire to be unique in several ways. First of all, I plan to keep it short. I find that I skim longer pieces on the web, and I think many people do the same. Also, by writing a short piece I intend to present an idea refined to its basic components.
Much of the writings of Judaism focus on its legalistic components. Here we will focus on deepening our three basic relationships: with G-d, with the greater world, and with ourselves.
Lastly, I will include personal experiences, thoughts, and stories. Ideas take on deeper significance when seen through the lens of life.
I hope this will be a forum for grappling with ideas, not just accepting them. Only through your feedback on the blog can we reach deeper understanding.