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.