Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Nation of Israel: Chosen for a Different Task

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

Is the Torah Divine? It’s All in How You Ask

One would imagine a book written by God to knock the reader out of his seat before reading the first word. Yet an adult opening up the Torah for the first time could easily mistake God’s eternal message to humanity for simplistic children’s stories.

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

Finding the God Within Us

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.

Moving Our Hearts Along with Our Lips

There is an unfortunate phenomenon found in many minyans in both the US and Israel called the 30-minute morning service. Slurred speech and speed-reading have unfortunately become the norm in many shuls.

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.