Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Constant Prayer of the Soul

One of the more paradoxical daily obligations of a Jewish male is the thrice-daily prayers.

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

The Human Being: A Potent Pile of Dirt

The Torah’s depiction of the creation of the human is unique in relation to all other aspects of creation: “And Hashem Elokim created man from the dirt of the ground…” (Genesis 2:7).

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

Forget God, Just Hold on to the Torah

The Midrashic literature can provide a surprising and sometimes shocking new perspective through which to look at God and the Torah. The following is a great example:

“(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

Say it Out Loud: The Library and the Beit Midrash

You can learn a lot about books not just from what’s inside them, but in how they are studied. Libraries across the world all share a common picture: massive stacks of books of all topics interspersed with desks where each person sits and reads quietly.

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.