Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Post Rosh Hashanah thoughts on the Shofar

I am always amazed at the spiritual power and depth of the Hebrew language. It is no accident that it has traditionally been referred to as the Holy Tongue. Not only is Hebrew the original language of the Holy Bible, and as such the quality of holiness is attributed to it, but often one discovers worlds of meaning embedded in one word, especially when the letters of that word are rearranged to spell new words with meanings and associations that are quite revealing.

“Shofar” (“שפר”) is such a word. Its sounding on Rosh Hashanah is the pre–eminent requirement and ritual of the celebration. Evocative with many historical allusions and references to future hopes and expectations, the word itself is rich in semantic connections that elicit fruitful lessons and messages.

The rabbis of our tradition have recognized several homiletic meanings. The word “shapeir” containing the same three consonants of shofar–ש (sh), פ (p), ר (r)–in the same order of consonants but different vocalization, is translated as “to improve” or “to better”. Thus, the shofar becomes an instrument for the improvement of one’s spiritual and Jewish life.

Closely associated with this meaning is that of “shefer” (“שפר”) meaning “beautiful, decorative, and attractive”. (“אמרי שפר” / “words of beauty” from Genesis 49:21)

As we engage in some rearrangement of the letters, the results continue to be quite surprising and illuminating.

Taking the last letter of shofar (“ר” or “r”) and placing it at the head of the word, we come to the word “reshef” (“רשף”) which means “spark, ember, or ray of light”. Curiously, the same word can mean “destruction, loss, or plague” (Deut. 32:24). Is the implication of these meanings that sparks, the initiating elements of fire, are both constructive and destructive elements? Can the shofar herald not only the arrival of redemption and freedom but can announce as well times of warning, peril, and loss?

To continue the process of rearrangement the word “shofar” embraces two suggestions that are remarkably suggestive of spiritual approaches that can be quite rewarding.
Moving the middle consonant to the beginning of the word we create another word, “pesher” (“פשר”), defined as “melting, softening, compromising, a solution to a problem, lukewarm”. Perhaps the aim of the shofar is to melt the hardness of our hearts and positions and create the possibility of give-and-take, even compromise, that will bring about a solution to so many human problems in the form of reconciliation.

Finally, with the middle letter occupying the beginning of the word and the last shifted to the middle we form the word “peresh” (“פרש”) meaning “clarification, clarity, explanation” or “spread, stretch, scatter”, or “to separate, set aside, withdraw, retire”.
Is not the dynamic of separation and withdrawal not a necessary element in the process of reaching out and stretching oneself to others and to the world? As the popular dictum of Hillel expresses: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for  myself, what am I?”A clarification of one’s identity embraces the dual dynamic of self-concern with the capacity to spread oneself outward in such a way as to share with the  community and world that which has been our individual blessings.

"Poreis"-פרש-spread over-brings to mind the evening prayer in which we pray for a canopy of peace to be spread over us during the night. Moreover, we refer to the canopy as that of a sukkah, a sukkah of peace. As we are currently in the midst of the Succot festival, the echos of the shofar resonate with the hope for peace in the darkness of today's world.

One word, three letters, in their fluid and dynamic rearrangements, they carry to our consciousness meanings of much significance. Is it any wonder that the Hebrew language is the language of the Divine?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Gratitude in the  Golden Years-Some Reflections

אל תשליכנו לעת זקנה ככלות כוחינו אל תעזבנו

Cast us not away when we are old,when our strength is gone do not abandon us
(High Holiday LIturgy)

During  my early  60’s, at a spiritual meditation retreat that mandated utter silence, I had an epiphany. Unexpected, sudden, entirely without any premonition or forethought, I found myself sobbing unstoppably, uttering the most genuine prayer of my life-”Thank You! Thank You.” Amidst a flood of tears gushed forth a cascade of gratitude- not for some external achievement of success or gain, not because of a recent experience of rescue from danger,  not even for the love of family-I felt grateful simply for being alive.There was no logical explanation for this phenomenon (I was told by  a psychiatrist acquaintance-”it was a gift!”)
   Since that moment of inspiration, perhaps revelation,  I have consciously and deliberately made every effort  to incorporate the awareness of gratitude into  all aspects of my life. I confess that I was  not always successful;  my prayers, moments of meditation and contemplation were primarily focussed on the perspective of gratitude in the various  phases of my daily experience. I continue to this day in the belief that gratitude is a gift of human perception that allows for some semblance of sanity, meaning, hope and happiness especially in the waning years of our lives. Without this outlook, we  may sink into a state of mind of indifference, cynicism even despair.
Gratitude does not seem to come naturally to most people, perhaps to none. Especially when we are young, it is natural, necessary, for us to stive in order to survive and thrive. The awareness of being grateful is submerged somewhere in the depths of desire and the inescapable drive for more. In our youth our physiology and psychology place getting and spending ahead of gratitude and being satisfied. Of course there are isolated moments of being beholden for what is achieved and acquired;  but gratitude stands on the sidelines during the this game that pits one against the challenges of overcoming obstacles and gaining new heights of acomplishment. The search for identity, for financial success, for proving one’s sexual prowess and gaining recognition and  prestige in one’s society are so entirely dominant that the ego thirsts for more and little if any psychic room is left for the experience of gratitude and thankfulness to God, nature, the universe, life or others in the line of humanity who have left behind an easier and more enriching world for us and others who will follow. Our view of life is narrow, concentrated on the self and  the orbit of those most closely connected with the self-family ,friends,  immediate community. There is time to remedy wrongs, correct errors and seek atonement for those things we regret. There always seems to be a tomorrow.
As we approach old age, however, tasks and expectations change; our reality is defined by a series of losses-loss of skin elasticity producing the dreaded dermatological nightmare of wrinkles; losses in hearing and vision; losses in energy levels; losses in metabolic rates and the loss of sexual interest, drive and capacity. Moreover, older years represent the loss of companionship; loved ones-spouses, friends, colleagues-loss of identity that for so long had been formulated and reinforced by activiity, function and role in society. Modern societies are not hospitable to the elderly; while tolerant, even respectful and helpful, nevertheless the young and the ideal of youthfulness persist as images of highest value and aspiration.
Billy Crystal, the humorist, tries to ease the sadness of aging in the following movie scene in which he addresses the kids in his child’s class in a joking way:
“Value the time of your life, kids. It goes by so fast. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. In your thirties you raise a family, you make a little money, and you think to yourself-‘what happened to my 20’s?’ Forties, you grow a little pot belly, another chin.The music starts to get too loud. One of your girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Fifties, you have minor surgery. You call it a procedure but it’s surgery. Sixties, you have major surgery. The music is still loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway. Seventies, you and your wife retire to Florida.You start eating dinner at two o’clock in the afternoon. You have lunch around ten and breakfast the night before. You spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the urinal and muttering ,‘How come the kids dont call? how come the kids don’t call?’” 
The greatest loss perhaps is that of time. Inescapably, our past stretches out further than our future. Life’s brevity depresses  us rather than impresses upon us its preciousness, precisely because  only few years remain. What lies ahead  is the end, mortality shaking its spiteful fist in our wrinkled faces. No more poignant description of oldness can surpass Shakespeare  and the Bible. Shakespeare describes old age as “second childnessnes  and mere oblivion/sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” In the book of Ecclesiastes ,12:1-5’ we read: (Translation-Zalman Schachter-Shlomi-From Age-ing to Sageing)
“Then come the creaking days. Years creep up in which one feels like saying ’I have no taste for them.’ For the sunlight darkens in the eyes; dimmed is the light of the moon and the stars; and the vision is patchy like a cloudy sky after the rain.The hands and arms,the guards of the house, begin to tremble. And the legs, like battle-tired soldiers, are unsure of their step. The grinding mills,  teeth, are fewer and the windows of the mind fog up...the back is bent and the urge to mate is weakenrd as a person walks to his eternal home.” 
In a humorous vein, the story has it that Grandpa and granddaughter were sitting and talking when the little girl asked: ”Did God make you, Grandpa?” 
“Yes, God made me,” the grandfather answered.
A few minutes later, the little girl asked him,”Did God make me too?”
“Yes, He did, “ the older man replied.
For a few minutes the little girl seemed to be studying her grandpa, as well as her own reflection in the mirror while her grandfather wondered what was running through her mind.
At last she spoke up.” You know, Grandpa,” she said, “God’s doing a lot better job lately.”
In the face of this bleak prospect of golden years that feel so tarnished and unwanted, years that are experienced not  as genuine  but as those belonging  to fools who have no choice but to endure till the end in a state of hopelessness and despair, is there a place for gratitude?  Whatever the spectrum of life’s many colors and hues, for most the spirit and soul remain as refuges of renewed hope, wisdom and joy. The older years bestow upon us the capacity to perceive life widely and deeply, with the freahness and innocence of a child and the insight and clarity of the experienced and veterans of living.
For many the arrival of grandchildren, even great-grandchildren is the greatest of all gifts bestowed only in old age. Those still healthy and vigorous likewise can find a way to experience gratitude for physical and mental well-being. We can also take inspiration from the select few who are especially  blessed with on-going ability to function and create and contribute even more meaningfully than in their earlier years.
Wherever we find ourselves along the path of life’s gifts, gratitude and a sense of its awareness springs from our souls that with spiritual effort can continue to shine making our  later years truly golden and precious.
Polly Francis, a fashion illustrator wrote a series of essays on old age when she was in her nineties. In her anthology, Songs of Experience, she writes the following:
“A new set of faculties seems to be coming into operation.I seem to be awakening to a larger world of wonderment- to catch little glimpses of the immensity and diversity of creation. More than at any time in my life, I seem to be aware of the beauties of our spinning planet and the sky above. And now I have the time to enjoy them. I feel that old age sharpens our awareness.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, shortly before his early death at sixty five years , told his disciple that throughout his life he asked God not for wealth, celebrity or wisdom. “I only asked for wonder!” This gift of vision seems to be reserved for the final years of one’s journey on this earth.  “In our later years we feel connected to the world through bonds of tenderness and empathy. Life becomes more poetic. The ordinary objects that surround us- trees, houses, clouds, animals-shimmer with metaphoric is animated in ways that constantly astound us.”( John Weir Perry-Lord of the Four Quarters.)
Perhaps paradoxically, as our years shorten, as time seems to race by, when our bodies and minds prepare for the home stretch, that is precisely the time during which our ability to be grateful is the keenest and most vibrant. To bask in the sun of gratefulness is a source of immeasurable joy and meaning.
A Zen Buddhist, Lewis Richmond, recommends that elders go on “gratitude walks” in which they consciously notice and appreciate anything that evokes thankfulness-trees, leaves, birds, children at play. Many older people walk as exercise, a very effective  activity that maintains bodily health. Setting aside a few minutes of that experience to pay attention to one’s surrounding and cultivate an attitude of gratitude goes far in elevating our spirits from places of despondency to heights of buouancy and greater lightness of being.
Notions of ‘letting go,’ surrender, unclenching our hearts and minds, being receptive with the awe and naivete of the child , can fill the many moments of later years with the dazzling array of the world’s beauty and wonder.
The young seek the adventure of the new and the unexpected.The old dwell in the richness of what is, and the serenity and fullness of what always was, the ecstasy of the eternal.
 An elderly woman and her little grandson whose face as sprinkled with freckles spent a day at the zoo. Lots of children were waiting to get their cheeks painted by a local artist who was decrating them with tiger paws.
“You’ve go so many freckles there is no place to paint,” a girl in line said to the little boy. Embarassed the boy dropped his head. 
His grandmother knelt down next to him.  “I love your freckles. When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles,” she said, while tracing her finger across the child’s cheek.
“Freckles are beautiful.” The boy looked up. “Really?” 
“Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name one thing that’s more beautiful than freckles?”
The boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandmother’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”
Even to the final moments of life, gratitude grounds us in the ultimate joy of being alive.
It is told that as death neared, one of the disciples of the dying master scoured the pastry shops for a confection that his master loved. In spite of his weakened condition, the master munched on the cake with utter pleasure. As his energy waned, the disciples leaned closer and asked if he had any final words to share.
“Yes,” he replied weakly.
“Please tell us,” they urged eagerly.
“My, but this cake is delicious!” the master said, and a moment later he breathed his last breath.

Needless  and sadly to say, there is  no small number of elderly whose mental , physical and material abilities are severly compromised, for whom the ability to touch the grace of gratitude is beyond  their reach. Yet for most, in place of dwelling, during the many moments available to us, on the disappointments, missed opportunities and regrets of the past, we can choose to grasp the myriad gifts that surround us with the spiritual grip of gratitude. If we exercise this choice, we too can echo the words of the master-”This cake is delicious.!”

Monday, September 19, 2016

The New Year-5777-A Year of Daring

This Jewish New Year we arrive at is 5777  of  the traditional Jewish chronology. In Hebrew, the last numbers-77-correspond to the Hebrew word -עז- which numerically adds up to 77; ע=70, ז=7.

The word “OZ” means strength, might, power. It is often  used in the liturgy when we pray that God bless Israel with strength and peace.
”ה’ עז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמן בשלום.”

Curiously, unlike other Hebrew words with only two letters which cannot be converted into a verb such as כח-‘koach’-which also means might and strength, the word contained in the numbers of our New Year- עז-can be expanded into a verb form by adding one additional letter, the same letter as the  second letter, spelling  עזז.
One of the forms of this word is להעיז- which means to dare.
Thus, when we attempt to understand the unique translation of the strength embedded in the letters for 77-עז-t the inference derived from  these numbers suggests the challenge and the opportunity of approaching the new year with our sights directed to the possibility of engaging in acts that are daring and courageous. 

Often we wish that certain things that appear beyond our reach can indeed become realized in our lives. They may involve a certain amount of risk taking, appearing somewhat out of grasp because of fear or the ostensible inaccessibilty of the that goal or objective.

The New Year beckons us to re-evaluate our capacity to take upon ourselves the willingness to dare, to step into the unknown with faith in ourselves, in the fullness of life’s potential ,in God, and make every reasonable effort to achieve that which is more adventurous and that which has been untried. Certainly a strong desire accompanied by the worthwhileness of the goal represent ingredients that contribute to the likely  actualization of our response of daring and strength.

Perhaps the world in general can dare to explore possibilities for arriving at new ways by which to sustain our planet and bring peace to the human community. We need the “OZ”-the strength, courage and daring, to attempt to pursue untried paths-those of peace , pleasantness , of compassion and love.
May the New Year of 5777 be a year of עז- of courage and daring for Israel , the world and in our personal lives. Amen

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Post -Shavuot Reflections-Intimations of Revelation

מי כמוך באלים ה’ מי  כמוך נאדר בקדש נורא תהילות עושה פלא
Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials (mighty) (all that is worshipped)
Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working  wonders?

The Festival of Weeks-Shavuot-highlights the event of revelation on SInai, the “Giving of the Torah.” The notion of revelation has been on my mind throughout the festival, begging for an interpretation and definition beyond the common and literal  understanding of the heavenly encounter between Israel and God on Mount Sinai resulting in the issuance of Torah to the Jewish people. Is revelation, therefore, a unique, one-time event, never to be duplicated in some way, or does it hold out the promise and possibility of a process that is continuous and on-going? How does one understand the concept of divine transmission to the human mind and heart?
I would like to believe that the full spectrum of creative thinking and output is an unending unfolding of revelation in human life. Do we understand the nature of a thought, an intuition, a sensing of that which is beyond the physical and easily recognizable? Do these phenomena not defy the categorization or measurement applied to other domains of human understanding, those that are considered scientific or material?
Whenever a depth of meaning or interpretation that has the potentiality of enriching my grasp of the divine occurs to me, I wonder whether that in fact represents a moment of revelation?
The above verse from the Pentateuch-Exodus 15:11, a passage that is part of the liturgy, struck me on Shavuot as being a verse of revelation that allowed me to unnderstand the nature of the divine in a way transcending the traditional and the more widely accepted.
On the face of this verse, it reflects a response of awareness of an Omnipotent God who delivers Israel from the hands of its enemies and in this demonstrates the incomporability of His power and might. From an historical/mythical  point of view, this makes perfect sense; however, its contemporary relevance in its ancient form of an Omnipotent God intervening in Israel’s affairs, fighting its battles as a divine warrior, is highly problematic.
Is this the prism through which we recognize the divine today? I think not. Thus the above passage deserves a different reading to extract from its rich language another way of ‘seeing’ God.
I suggest the following. The final phrase of this passage-translated as God who works wonders,עושה פלא- to me conveys a different but essential  idea of God’s Presence in the world. 
God is the Source of Wonder in the universe. His  incomparability, holiness and splendor, celebrated in the verse, are not related to His Might as a Warrior, but to His creative unfolding of a world  as a place infused with wonder, awaiting the awe, the joy, the sublime awareness of the human mind and heart that can recognize the wonder in all things. The dimension of the  divine in human life and the beauty and complexities of the natural world all point to a reality that is divine, transcending the apparent, captured so often by the eye of the artist and the ear of the poet and the musician, and the heart and soul of the scholar and saint.
This is not a totally unprecedented revelation. So many of us have been inspired by the thinking and presence of Abraham Joshua Heschel, of saintly memory. In some way, if the above insight can be understood as a mirror of revelation, its source on its journey to my mind was the brilliant and illustrious soul of Heschel.
Prior to his untimely demise in 1972, Heschel suffered a near fatal heart attack from which he never fully recovered. A student , Samuel H. Dresner, traveled to his apartment in New York to see him.  
“He had gotten out of his bed for the first time to greet me and was sitting in the living room when I arrived, looking weak and pale. He spoke slowly and with some effort, almost in a whisper......
‘Sam,’ he said,‘when I regained consciousness, my first feelings were not of despair or anger. I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I had lived. I was ready to depart. ‘Take me, O Lord,’ I thought, ‘I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime.’
Exhausted by the effort, he paused for a moment , then added: ‘That is what I meant when I wrote (in the preface to his book of Yiddish poems):
‘I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.’ “ ( I Asked for Wonder, A Spiritual Anthology -Abraham Joshua Heschel, ed.Samuel H. Dresner,1986, Crossroad, New York.)

Who is like You-You who created the Wonder of life, the Wonder of the world, and put the human being on this earth to perceive it, and praise the Source  for it.