Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Grateful for the Good

 A pivotal word that appears six times in chapter 6, verses 10-25 in the Book of Deuteronomy, is “TOV”-טוב-good-in various forms, as a noun and as a verb.
The one reference that struck me as particularly significant was that verse in which “tov” appears three times: 
“Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you and that you may possess the good land that the Lord your God promised on oath to your fathers.”( Deut.6,18)
The commonplace understanding of “good” in this citation and in many passages of the book of the Torah is that good behavior will be rewarded with good results-a good land, prosperity, security and peace.In other words, the classical theme of reward and punishment is again reiterated in this verse.
I would like to interpret the phrase-’do what is right and good....that it may go well (be good) with you’ differently. The Hebrew-למען ייטב לך-translated as ‘that it may go well with you’ could be translated differently to remove the ostensible difficulty in the theology of reward and punishment and provide an important insight into the nature of human moral development. By doing what is good and right, one’s becomes good, if not better than before. The consequence of moral behavior is not necessarily some material reward, but a spiritual benefit of self-improvement. 
What further reinforces this interpretation  is the comment by the JPS Commentary on verse 24 in which the author points out that the Ramban understood the clause-”for our lasting good”-לטוב לנו כל הימים- ‘to refer to the social laws which by their very nature benefit society.” 
While one can argue that the highest good is to do good for its own sake, a further convincing , perhaps pragmatic, argument for the performance of the good in our lives is the result of emerging as the better person which can bring blessing upon oneself and others and not depend on a more primitive wish for some  extraneous reward from a cosmic Power. When we think of the age old conundrum of “why bad things happen to good people” a partial answer resides in the reality that for good to outweigh the bad goodness contributes to the moral stature of each individual so that in the moral universe only the good can happen to the good.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

  Grateful for the message of Aaron the high priest

On Shabbat, our family  makes use of a simple device to enhance the spiritual nature of the day. At the shabbat table, each participant blindly selects two “Angel Cards” and discusses their relevance to her/himself. Angel cards provide key words that help you focus on particular aspects of your inner life. Each word is a human quality which when thought about will echo in one’s life in some way. Meditating on these qualities can help support greater understanding of one’s inner self.
This past Shabbat I selected :”KINDNESS” and “HARMONY! Upon thinking about this choice and discussing the implications with my wife, it became evident that a means to harmony and well being is the pursuit of kindness in one’s life.Indeed, the path to peace is strewn with myriad acts and words of kindness.
 As we discussed this spiritual  connection it occurred to me that the Sabbath Torah reading -Hukat-contained the death of Aaron, the high priest. We are told- “ All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”(Numbers 20:29) In contrast, we read in Deuteronomy 34:8,”Israelites(not all of Israel) bewailed Moses.” Why did Aaron’s death touch each and every Israelite in such a way that each one felt a deep personal loss with the passing of Aaron? 
The Sayings of the Sages(Pirke Avot)  has the following passage.  “ Hillel said: Be a disciple of Aaron -loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them to the study of Torah.”( chpt 1:12)
Aaron was the embodiment of these qualities of the Angel cards I had selected. Again and again he resolved disputes and harshness through interventions of kindness and love. The Midrash tells us- “ When Aaron would meet a wicked man, he greeted him warmly. The next day, when the man was about to commit a transgression he would say to himself: Woe is me, how could I ever raise my eyes and face Aaron? I would be too embarassed. Thus he refrained from further transgression.”(ARN 12)

Kindness and harmony, one the cause of the other. My daughter’s contribution to this discussion was invaluable. She pointed out that the angel card suggested another dimension of spiritual betterment ,that which entails the relationship of onself to oneself. It calls upon us to act kindly towards ourselves in order to arrive at some harmony and inner peace. Too often we treat our selves much too harshly and thus increase an inner sense of unhappiness and turmoil. Kindness shown by us to ourselves can only lead to greater serenity, integrity and peace.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Grateful for a silent retreat-Psalm 23-A psalm of friendship

I have only recently returned from a 5 day long silent meditation retreat sponsored by the Jewish Spirituality Institute.The following represents the result of one important insight I arrived at in relation to my effort to pray more meaningfully to God.

יהוה רעי
“The Lord is my shepherd”
yud-hey-vav-hay, the God of Love, is my shepherding Friend my
“yedid nefesh”-soul mate,life force,my pal.
(one simple vowel change in the word for my shepherd-”ro’ee” and we have “rey-ee”
my friend.)
לא אחםר
“ I shall not want”
I will not be wanting,I will feel accepted for myself, without  the critical demands
of perhaps a parent-Father ,even Mother-who,  commonly invest too much in their children with excessive expectations to satisfy personal needs; a friend however supports and guides no matter what.
בנאות דשא ירביצני 
על מי מנוחות ינהלני
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures , he leadeth me beside the still waters”
He shares with me his green pastures, we picnic together under the summer skies;
we dip our hands in the cool ripples of water, refreshing body and soul.
He sees to it  that  I not  fall into the waters of the flowing sun- filled stream.
נפשי ישובב
ינחני במעגלי צדק
למען שמו
 “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.”
When I stray because of hurt, fear or anger, he reminds me 
of the transience of things, how the world turns in lopsided ways,
reassuring me of the gift of who I am because of his faithfulness to our friendship.
גם כי אלך בגיא צלמות
לא אירא רע
כי אתה עמדי
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me”

Especially when confronted with dark times
because you are  simply standing by my side,
I will not fear the worst, and will find the strength to continue into the sunshine.
שבטך ומשענתך המה ינחמוני
“thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”

Whatever prop or support you use 
will hold me up in these dire times and 
comfort me-if a crook or walking stick,they will be used not to strike but to gently
guide and shepherd me out of the shadows into the light.
תערוך לפני שלחן נגד צררי
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies”
You set an abundant table to share with all
in the face of those who would constrict my life 
as they shut out the world
trapped in their desire to harm and hurt,
not heal or help.
דשנת בשמן ראשי כוסי רויה
“thou anointest  my head with oil; my cup runneth over”
When I feel dry and wilted in spirit
you douse me with moisturizing oils of trust and compassion
that replenish my soul
and I feel the gratitude that comes with having
so much in one’s life, announcing to all
“my cup spills over!”
אך טוב וחסד ירדפוני 
כל ימי חיי
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
Through your friendship,
I am assured that the future will hold
good times and those in which goodness
will fill my life
and those of others.
ושבתי בבית יהוה לארך ימים
“and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”
And I will finally become aware 
of the everlasting reality of God’s love 
as the ultimate desire of my life-be my friend so that 
I shall no longer be wanting.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Grateful for Yizkor-Reflections on   “The Lord is my Shepherd”

Yizkor is a sad time; but as an opportunity for reflection it can be transformed into a moment of understanding and insight.
Because I had read the 23rd Psalm  most often in English in the course of my rabbinic work, I never paid sufficient attention to the Hebrew. This time, one word caught my attention. I realized that its translation, while widespread, common and familiar , may not capture its essence. The verse referred to is the following:
....ינחיני במעגלי צדק למען שמו
“He leads me on paths-pathways of justice-righteousness, for His Name’s sake” ( v.3).
The word translated as “path” could and perhaps should be translated differently.
 “B’maaglei”-”במעגלי”-is derived from the Hebrew word “עגל", round or circular.

Unlike the Western mode of thought that views life and time as a progression or regression,what is suggested by the word ‘maaglei’ is the Kabbalistic notion that all of life and time moves circularly, each point containing the fullness of God’s justice and righteousness. The author of the Psalm seems to discover comfort from his journey through the valley of darkness in the awareness that godliness ie. justice,righteousness,”tzedek,”-is merely temporarily out of sight and will eventually reappear as points in a circle rotate and return to their original place.
Interestingly, in the world of Kabbalah, divinity is circular-the first sefirah is “keter”-a crown,  that which is circular, the ineffable source of the Godhead-the Ein Sof-which represents the first stirrings of divinity in the universe.The final sefirah,”malchut”-is also known as “atarah,” another word for crown or that which is round and circular.
As Arthur Green puts it so cogently in his wonderful book-Ehyeh-Kabbalah for Tomorrow- “Now we should see the sefirot (the world of Divinity) as a sacred circle, ‘Its end tied to its beginning and its beginning to its end.”(p.59).
Green continues:  “The circle of life includes all that is. In order to understand the process, to trace the origin of the many back to the One, we have allowed ourselves to open the circle, to turn it temporarily into a series of straight lines, so that we may see its progression...this is the way our linear brains work....now we have come to the end of that system......we must remember, as the kabbalists remind us, that really we understand nothing at all. Therefore we rejoin the circle, tie its ends back together , and allow ourselves to dance within  it....The ten sefirot must become a way of thinking for us, not a body of knowledge.They are the choreography for a dance of the mind......”(Ibid)

Thus the Psalmist articulates his faith in the dance of life at the time of his deepest sorrow and sadness, his moment of greatest fear and isolation.
God will lead him “b’maaglei tzedek”-open the awareness of his heart to the reality of life as a wondrous circular dance.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Grateful for the challenge of the heart on Succoth

A well-known Midrash analogizes the four species of vegetation taken in hand on Succoth to four parts of the human anatomy.
“.......the spine of the lulav can be compared to the human spine, the hadas-the myrtle leaves are similar to the eyes, the aravah-the willow resembles the mouth and the shape of the  etrog brings to mind the human heart.......”( Leviticus Rabah 30:14).

While each of the species is important and requires diligence in their selection, the etrog  stands out as the plant most carefully considered on the holiday. Thus, one can suggest, that of all the human organs and their various functions, the heart as the seat of deepest feeling and spiritual receptiveness is viewed as the major artery for the journey to the divine.
I would add, by a slight readjustment of the Hebrew word Lulav-לולב-that this particular plant likewise highlights the centrality of the heart in the observance of Succoth and by extension in the quest for the spiritual life. If we divide the word lulav, we arrive at two words which read-lu-lev ,changing the vocalization slightly in the second word.Using Hebrew letters we have-לו-לב,which is translated as “if only heart!”
The succoth festival is a time of rejoicing-זמן שמחתינו; “simcha” in my way of thinking is the joy that flows out of a sense of gratitude for the gifts of life, in this case the bountiful harvest for which the ancient pilgrim would be grateful and rejoice in God’s Presence in the Sanctuary of Jerusalem. The seat of joyful gratitude is the heart. When our hearts are opened and we allow ourselves to experience the gratitude of life’s many gifts and blessings, then we discover the essential joy in being alive.
This joy is a source of great sweetness which brings me to a different  interpretation of another of the four species of vegetation taken on Succoth, namely the willow, the ערבה.
Interestingly the word for willow-”aravah”-has the very same root for another word whose meaning is sweet, “arev”. For example, in the Song of Songs we read that the voice of the lover’s beloved is sweet- “כי קולך ערב”-  “let me hear your voice for your voice is sweet.”(Chpt 2:14)
Thus the taking of the lulav and etrog and the aravah point to the heartfelt experience of sweetness in the celebration of Succoth and for that matter in the course of our reaching out to the spiritual dimension of our lives.

One species, the hadas, myrtle leaves, remains unaccounted for in the context of the above re-interpretation. The myrtle leaves are referred to in the Torah not as Hadas but as leaves of עץ עבות- a leafy tree.The word “Avot”-עבות-is related to two other Hebrew words-cloud and thickness. I would like to offer my understanding of this particular plant in the cluster of the four species as an item that challenges us to remove the thickness in our  hearts, the feelings and sensations that becloud the clarity that one can arrive at by opening our hearts to the divine around us.
 Curiously, the Hebrew word for etrog-אתרג, if its letters are somewhat rearranged,we construct the word-אתגר-meaning challenge. This I believe is the challenge of succoth.
The place of our deepest internal experiences is the heart; it is this part of our being that we invite to witness the beauty and joy of Succoth, and all of life.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Grateful for the Soul-Post Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur, I spoke about the soul. After all, the Day of Atonement is the most spiritual of all Jewish days.The concept of soul is most difficult to wrap one’s mind around. Soul suggests the abstract, the intangible, something none of our five senses can tap into. Yet, our intuitive imaginations feel that the soul is  real, a vital and essential part of who we are.
 Perhaps one of the best definitions of soul was given by Mark Nepo, poet, writer, teacher. “Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarassment, free of fear and worry, an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God.....to know this spot of inwardness is to know who we are by........feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it.”

In my mind this spot refers to the image of God-צלם אלהים-the divine piece of our beings.
In Hebrew,the soul is translated as נשמה-”neshamah” derived from the root-נשם-”nashom”-to breathe. I was toying with the word as I love to do with key words of the Hebrew language and rearranging the letters of the root word I arrived at a word that can be pronounced-מנש-”mensh.” Clearly, I am am being fanciful with the grammar; there is no Hebrew word pronounced this way. But, in Yiddish, “mensh” is a highly important word-it means -a good, decent, caring, sensitive,  generous and kind human being,” all the ingredients that go into the making of an ideal moral and spiritual human being.
Thus one can conclude the the origin of one’s goodness and kindness resides in the soul-the “neshamah” the “spot of grace” touched by God,the very image of God.

All humans possess this spark( some believe that all living things-animals included,have this divine something in their make-up as living creatures created by God).
It is this core that is the objective of all our concerns, prayers, meditations, thoughts and considerations experienced during the full 24 hours of fasting and self-reflection.
I trust  that on this Yom Kippur, we were all blessed with making a reacquaintance with our souls  and that the new year will afford us the opportunity to cultivate and polish that precious part of who we are.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Grateful for Rosh Hashanah as a festival of Freedom

Commonly, the Festival of Freedom in Jewish life is Passover! Yet,I maintain, that freedom is at the heart of Rosh Ha shanah as well.
 How do we arrive at this conclusion ? After all, Rosh Hashanah is referred to by tradition as the Season of soul- searching and the sounding of Teruah, the shofar?

Moreover,while each of the pilgrimage festivals  on the Jewish calendar is multidimensional in its meaning and the Exodus enters into the rationale for these holy events, Rosh Hashanah is not included as a time during which we recall the Exodus.
However, the Talmud asks what does Rosh Hashanah commemorate and we are provided with several answers, one of which strongly suggests the idea of freedom. 
“Rabbi Eliezer said: in Tishrei-the month of Rosh Hashanah, the world was created.”(Talmud Rosh Hashanah 10b) Ostensibly, this interpretation is wholly logical with the idea of the creation of the world and Rosh Hashanah as signifying the birthday of the world. As such, some liberal congregations select as the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah the creation story-Genesis,Chapter 1. Yet, most other congregations, and the tradition indicates a very different Torah reading, Genesisi 21 :1-34. Why?

This segment tells the story of the birth of a child ,Isaac, the son of Sarahand Abraham.
But more than that, it continues to narrate the expulsion of the concubine Hagar with her  son and her son’s near death in the wilderness, and the eventual appearance of God’s angel to rescue her and her child, Ishmael. God hears the voice of   Hagar, the Egyptian concubine, and assures her through a messenger, that she too will give birth to a great nation.
How are we to understand this selection in relation to Rosh Hashanah’s meaning?
To answer, consider another statement in the Talmud that conveys a different rationale for Rosh Hashanah’s meaning.
“On Rosh Hashanah, Joseph went forth from prison.”( Ibid 11b).
In other words, this festival marks an event of freedom from imprisonment of some kind. In Joseph’s case, prison was literal and he found himself in such a situation by being falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of sexual advances.
In Hagar’s case, she is the victim of both her ethnic and social status and her gender as a woman. Sarah and Abraham can do with her what they wish. Therefore, at the insistence of Sarah, echoed by God Himself, Abraham expels Hagar from his household. Hagar as concubine and Egyptian was a prisoner of the social mores of that time-an underdog, a slave with no rights and no power of self-assertion.
Being a woman,furthermore, only exacerbated her condition of utter vulnerability, bringing her to the edge of the abyss together with her child,the essence of her womanhood and personhood.
The story ,however, takes a turn toward the divine and miraculous as intervention from above announces a new reality in the spiritual evolution of humanity, namely the capacity to be free, to transcend social, gender and political status and survive successfully as human beings with god-given rights of being loved and cared for.Thus the message of freedom on Rosh Hashanah that determined the selection of this particular story as a Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah.

We are grateful for the multiple richness of this festival especially for the gift of personal freedom rooted in our identity as God’s children.Happy New Year,