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.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gathering our Stories for Seder Night

The Hagaddah teaches that no matter how knowledgeable the person, “one who prolongs the telling of the story of the Exodus [on seder night], behold this is praiseworthy.”

Rav Zadok HaCohen of Lublin asks a question about this passage: how long can the telling go on? All we have are the passages themselves in the Torah and the midrash. Once we’ve recounted them, what else is there?

He answers that each one of us should innovate a new angle to the Exodus story. Without bringing our unique insights and praises into to the story, it remains incomplete.

It seems to me that can happen when, in the words of the Rambam, every person experiences him or herself as personally coming out of Egypt. This pertains not only to imagining and recreating the historical Exodus, but being deeply in contact with our own personal Egypt, the narrow places that constrict our lives and our consciousness, and the ideal vision of how we want to live our lives.

In this way the seder table becomes not a re-telling, but an actual experience of personal redemption. By sharing the places in our lives where we are stuck, along with all the kindness that Hashem bestows upon us, the seder night becomes alive with the spirit of redemption, and can propel us towards the ideal vision of who we want to become.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Embracing the Clarity of Hindsight

“Please show me Your Presence,” Moshe asks Hashem on Mt Sinai after Israel has been forgiven for the sin of the golden calf.

“I cannot, since no one can see my face and live,” Hashem answers. “I will put you in a cleft in the rock…you will see my back, but my face cannot be seen” (Shemot 33, 18-23).

Much has been written about this dialogue between Hashem and Moshe; what is Moshe asking for, and what is Hashem’s answer?

Rav Mordechai Yosef, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, offers a deep explanation. When Hashem’s presence passed over Moshe, he saw all that happened in the past through God’s perspective. Even the most theologically problematic matters, i.e., the existence of evil, disease, etc., were all revealed to Moshe. This is Hashem’s back.

But what Hashem could not show Moshe was the future, i.e. Hashem’s face. That is something no one can see. Hashem’s providence can only be fully understood in retrospect. Especially in light of the great numbers of tragedies that Israel has undergone, Hashem cannot be understood in the now. Only through the passage of time, when we reach a point of greater clarity, can we see the present in its proper context.

Hashem’s Presence may be hidden in the now, but the faith that carries us is the knowledge that in the future we will see clearly how Hashem was guiding us the whole time.

Dedicated to the complete healing of my dear friend Eliezer Chaim ben Zelda Tzipora.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Broken Tablets and Believing in Hashem’s Faith

Imagine the following scene: Moshe ben Avraham is called up for an aliyah to the Torah on Shabbat morning. He says his blessing, and the reader begins to chant the text. The shul is packed, and immediately everyone starts schmoozing, even though the rabbi has already asked them several times to keep quiet.

Suddenly the reader grabs the scroll, lifts it over his head, and hurls it towards the floor; wood shatters and flies into the air, and the parchment unfurls almost out the door. Everyone is in shock.

“Yashar Koach,” says the rabbi as he stands up from his chair on the dais, and starts clapping his hands. The congregation is quiet.

Even someone with the lowest level of religious sensitivity could never throw down a Torah scroll. Yet as Moshe descends from Mt. Sinai with the tablets in his hands, his reaction to Israel’s worshiping a golden calf is to smash the Torah. Equally shocking, as the midrash paints it, Hashem says, “Yasher Koach that you broke them (the tablets).”

Rav Zadok HaCohen (Tzidkat HaTzadik 154) attempts to make sense of Moshe’s severe reaction. Moshe understood the magnitude of the nation’s transgression, and knew the repercussions would be great. Indeed, Hashem suggests to Moshe that Hashem will wipe out the nation and begin afresh with him. “Blot me out of your book,” Moshe replies. Moshe refuses to give up on Israel.

Says Rav Zadok, this is why Moshe broke the tablets: he needed to do an act of equal atrocity, so that he too would be on the same level as the nation. What more dreadful act could there be then breaking the tablets carved out by Hashem?

“Yasher Koach,” Hashem replies. Moshe threw his lot in with the people based on his belief in himself and in the nation. Forgiveness could be Hashem’s only appropriate response. The message that Rav Zadok draws out from this difficult story: one not only needs to believe in Hashem, but one also needs to believe that Hashem believes in us also. Despite our flaws and missteps we are still endowed with a divine aspect of Hashem, and are always connected to our Creator.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Month of Adar: C’mon Get Happy

The Mishna in Ta’anit tells us that with the arrival of the month of Adar comes an increase in joy. But what’s to get happy about?

The Sfat Emet teaches that Adar is a time for awakening one’s love for Hashem. Just as Elul, the month before Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah, is a time for tshuva (repentance), so too the month of Adar is a special time for tshuva, since Nissan also marks a beginning of the year.

But there is a substantial difference between these two types of tshuva. During Elul our tshuva is driven by awe; during Adar, it is driven by love.

Adar is not about fear of judgment, but rather about a desire to be close to our Creator.

Rav Yitzhak Luria, known as the Ari of Tsfat, taught that Yom Kippur is Yom Ke-Purim, i.e., the day that is likened to Purim. In other words, Yom Kippur, a day in which Hashem wipes the slate clean from all our misdeeds, takes a back seat to Purim. How can this be?

In the Sfat Emet we see an answer. A relationship based on fear or awe is not a complete relationship. Imagine a marriage in which the spouse is only fulfilling his or her obligations out of a feeling of fear. Obviously this is a relationship in dire straits. So too with our relationship with Hashem; if our whole desire to come close is only out of obligation or fear of punishment, the relationship is on shaky ground.

Adar is a time to focus on all the good and blessing that fills our lives, and how we want to be close to the Source of that blessing. There is no room for misdeeds when this is our focus. And as our sages teach, there is no greater joy then experiencing closeness to Hashem.

Here are some practical ways in which to feel this joy and closeness:

¨ Before you go to bed at night, write down three things that happened that day for which you feel thankful to Hashem.

¨ Find a quiet place to talk to Hashem. Speak freely about specific positive events that have happened to you recently.

¨ Take an extra moment in your daily prayers to close your eyes and take a breath, and to focus on the source of that breath. Alternatively, during prayer put your hands on your chest, and feel the warmth and life that radiates from your body.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Moment after Receiving the Torah

The transition between the Torah’s description of the national revelation at Mt. Sinai to the bulleted list of property laws listed immediately afterwards is jarring.

Imagine the scene at Mt. Sinai: the sages tell us that we were like a unified body in our mutual desire to receive the Torah. God reveals Himself to the nation; it was an event that, according to the Zohar, caused their souls to literally leave their body.

It was the absolute height of spirituality.

Then, in the next moment, Moshe enrolled the nation in Tort Law 101. We learn about indentured servitude, personal damages, property damage, etc. Where’s the transition? What happened to the spiritual experience, to the oneness?

The Ramban, in his first comment on Mishpatim, explains that the laws elucidated in the adjacent section are a translation of the last of the Ten Commandments, i.e., the prohibition of coveting.

Says the Ramban, if it were not for the property laws listed directly after the prohibition of coveting, you would not know what is yours and what is not. Therefore the Torah has to describe the parameters of ownership.

Spirituality can be defined as engaging with the entity that created and gives life to all of creation. A moment when one experiences this greater reality can alter one’s life. I remember distinctly a Shabbat meal where a friend shared a moving experience during his first trip to the Western Wall, where he felt “so connected.” That moment opened him up to further exploration of his Judaism and to pursue a life in Israel.

True, tasting the oneness can provide a high like none other. However, it is not the end goal. Jewish spirituality values both the concept of oneness, along with well-defined boundaries. We must develop a clear sense of self, as well as maintain the consciousness of our greater context. The awareness of this paradox prevents perversions of spirituality that violate healthy borders in all types of relationships.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Serving Hashem with Stubborness

I find driving in Israel a difficult task. When you have a “nation of priests,” everyone thinks they rule the road. God tells the Jewish people that they are a “stiff-necked people,” a prophecy one can experience any time one needs to switch lanes in a pinch.

I always get a laugh when I see is a car with Ain Od Milvado, There is nothing other than Him, a passage from Devarim, printed in large letters on the back windshield of a hatchback. As he cuts me off, I’m wondering if he thinks the translation is “There’s nobody else but me on the road.”

It’s only one of the many ways one can experience holy chutzpa in modern day Israeli culture. But this stubbornness is a character trait that can be redeemed.

According to Rebbe Nachman of Brestlov (Meshvat Nefesh 31), one needs great stubbornness in the service of Hashem. There will be endless ups and downs in this endeavor, and in order to overcome the many obstacles one must be tremendously stubborn.

Strengthening our character and becoming more aware of Hashem’s presence in our life is an endless process filled with pitfalls. The normal daily details of life constantly pull us way from this growth.

So too with any meaningful goal; there will be challenges at every point, and in order to find success we must act with diligence. Only through being stiff-necked can we reach our goals, whether in service of God or otherwise.

Dedicated to our new daughter Sara Temima, named after my grandmother Sarah Jean Cohen, a strong, stubborn woman whose determination helped turn around many lives.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Names that Carry us to Exodus

We usually translate Shmot, the second book of the Torah, as Exodus, but literally it is called the Book of Names. Why call the book of exile and redemption the Book of Names?

The topic of names reminds me of a well-known quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” Translation: what something is matters more than what it is called.

True, a name can never capture the full essence of an object. However, there is still great importance to a name, to the extent that King Shlomo wrote in Kohelet, “A good name is better than good oil.”

The Chasidic master known as the Sfat Emmet gives an explanation of this passage in Kohelet. He says that good oil is an allusion to the priests who are anointed with oil as an initiation into their service in the Temple. Better than serving Hashem in the Temple, a position that comes as an inheritance, is the effort and exertion one puts into serving God. It is through this effort that one acquires a “good name,” i.e., the recognition and reward for the hard work put in.

This brings us back to our initial question. The Book of Shmot begins: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt”…and then lists Yaakov and his sons. The Sfat Emmet teaches that our ancestors went down to Egypt and maintained the spiritual level of their names. In other words, the spiritual work that they had done and the name that they had made for themselves also came down with them to Egypt. In this way they were able to carry the light of God even into the darkest depths of exile. These names, i.e., the spiritual inheritance of our ancestors, carried Israel through the exile long after their death, and ultimately led to Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the receiving the Torah.

The name that we make for ourselves, meaning the work we do both on our character traits and in our mitzvah observance, is what we leave behind for the next generation. It is our inheritance in the next world, and what allows the presence of Hashem to shine even in this long, dark exile. And it is through these efforts that we will ultimately bring about our redemption as well.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Bringing Redemption through Artistic Expression

Most of us are familiar with the concept of tikkun olam, literally fixing the world, as a major precept of the Jewish tradition. But how exactly does one do tikkun olam? How can we help Hashem bring the world towards completion?

Repentance, charity, and acts of kindness are all good assumptions with plenty of textual support. Building a home founded on Jewish values is another. There is much to say about simply serving God joyfully through Torah.

But what about art? Is it possible that artistic expression is a key component in tikkun olam?

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook in his Introduction to Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) makes the following bold assertion:

Art, in all its variations, serves to express every concept, every emotion, and every thought found in the human soul. As long as even one trait remains concealed in the soul, it is the artist’s obligation to reveal it.

Art, according to Rav Kook, is the necessary expression of the hidden human experience. The artist is obligated to reveal his or her unique perspective of the world, whether through writing, or though visual art. The entire range of the human experience must be brought before the eyes of the world. Hashem’s creation is literally incomplete without it.

Rav Kook clearly notes that this expression must fit a certain ethical framework. And it is within that framework that the poem and the prose once hidden in the heart of the writer tell the tale of God’s ever-present kindness. The painter and the photographer help to fix the world by revealing Hashem’s presence in every brushstroke and every beam of light.

Art, as the ultimate reflection of life, allows us to see the beauty and truth contained within each moment, and within all creation. Tikkun olam is achieved through this greater awareness of Hashem.