Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Succot-The Season of Rejoicing:
How do we experience joy?


One of the popular rabbinic interpretations of the lulav and etrog is the imaginative understanding that compares each of the four species-palm branch, myrtle branch, willow and citron to essential parts of the human anatomy.  “.......the spine of the palm branch can be compared to the spine of one’s back; the myrtle leaf is analogous to  the human eye; the willow brings to mind the shape of the human mouth and  the etrog reminds us of the human heart........”(Leviticus Rabbah 30;14)
Clearly the Rabbis sought ways by which to infuse the ritual with homiletic significance and thus the above interpretation was taught as an explanation of the  verse in Psalms-”All my limbs will declare who is like You, O Lord” (Psalms 35;10)

Perhaps too what lingered beneath the Midrashic ‘humanization’ of elements in nature was the mystical awareness of the unity that underlies all things rendering the human and the ostensibly inert dimensions of nature integral parts of the Unity and Wholeness of all of God’s creation.

Whatever the understanding, I would like to extend the  way of seeing the lulav and etrog as it pertains to the human heart. The Etrog is viewed by the tradition as symbolizing the heart. By exercising a semantic split between the two syllables of the word LULAV : LU-LAV, לו-לב, we can define these syllables as two separate words-לו, meaning “if only,” and לב-”lev,” which is translated as heart. Thus, the taking of the lulav carries with it the hope that the heart is  that part of the human anatomy and psychology that can be  recruited on Succot to experience the essential sentiment of the season, namely joy, or better yet, grateful joy.

Returning to the etrog, traditionally compared to the human heart, if we rearrange the final two  letters of the Hebrew word -אתרג -we construct a new word with a powerful new possibility for the experience of Succot. The word is אתגר, challenge.
One can then argue that indeed the spiritual challenge of Succot is to marshall the heart in the service of the  divine. In fact, the opening  or softening of the heart is regarding by Hassidim, meditators and mystics alike, as the spiritual means by which to gain access to the dimension of the divine. The Bible itself perceives  the heart as the seat of human consciousness and awareness by which we experience the full richness and illumination of the presence of the holy in life. 


The heart is the locus of human joy and the space from which we experience the joy and simcha of gratitude and thanksgiving on Succot and any other day of the year.
Simcha as joyful gratitude-An essential religious sentiment

A little less than 60 years ago I was invited to deliver a sermon in the synagogue of my youth on the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Succot. I was a student at Yeshiva University, and had decided that my life’s goal was to become a rabbi. I was deeply honored by the invitation, excited but very anxious. Not only would the rabbi be present but family and many friends of my childhood and youth as well. 
I can clearly recall the sermon’s theme-the meaning of the “ joy of the mitzvah” in Judaism.  It was based on a Talmudic passage : “The Divine Presence ( Shechinah) rests neither in the midst of sadness, nor in the midst of idleness, nor in the midst of frivolity, nor in the midst of levity, nor in the midst of chitchat, nor in the midst of inane talk, but only in the midst of the  joy in performing a mitzvah.” (Shabbat 30b)

 Thinking  back I’m amused by my naive,  idealistic ardor  which led to  a strident castigation of those who observe Judaism only at certain  times, and not in a consistent manner. For example, sadness-death and misfortune; will elicit a religious response; or celebrating a connection to Judaism exclusively at moments of  levity and frivolity-Bar Mitzvahs etc. I devoted little attention to the climactic phrase of the passage-simcha shel mitzvah-the rejoicing of or in the performance of the mitzvah. It was easier to be critical than to offer a meaningful way to appropriate Judaism or a religious way of life.

On the surface the meaning of this phrase-simcha shel mitzvah- suggests  the essentiality of joy when engaged in performing religious acts.The question naturally arises: What is the nature of this joy, of “simchah?” Does joy not contain elements of delight, pleasure, gaiety even levity? After all, the Hebrew word for levity or laughter  is ‘sechok,’ and it is referred to positively in the Talmudic section mentioned above quoting Kohelet-Ecclesiastes: “ I said of laughter it is to be praised!”(Chpt.2, 2) While joy in itself is commendable while  performing a mitzvah, is it humanly possible to feel so under all circumstances of religious activity?  After all, there are times of sadness and struggle, sickness and hardship, that make it impossible for any empathic person to rejoice! Can we discover joy in any and all mitzvoth?
I believe we can if we understand the notion of ‘simchah’ in a uniquely Jewish way. The emphasis on rejoicing on the festivals, especially the occasions of pilgrimage  which celebrate harvest and the receiving of God’s gifts , can only be grasped if we consider gratitude as the core sentiment contained in the rejoicing experience. In other words, rejoicing in the holy act embraces  feeling grateful for the opportunity, privilege and gift associated with the performance of the noble deed. Not a few  view religious responsibilities as burdensome; it is not uncommon for many to complain about the arduousness of the regimen of mitzvot in Judaism. 
The festival of Succot, a season of rejoicing lends itself easily and seamlessly to the experience of joy-when we are surrounded with bounty, relieved of worry that there wont be enough to eat during the rainy winter months and make a journey to Jerusalem without the usual challenges of work, surrounded by family and the beauty of nature in the forms of a succah and the lulav and etrog-gratitude flows smoothly in our hearts and we rejoice thankfully.
Succot is the Season of our Rejoicing precisely because it attempts to elevate natural joy and celebration to a level of greater spirituality, one that evokes consciousness of a Source of All life,resulting in an attitude of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Thus, the unique and specific occasion of Succot can irrigate our souls to rejoice in the performance of the “good deed” any time of the year. In the midst of this kind of ‘simcha,’ rejoicing, there is space in our hearts open and receptive  to receive the Divine Presence.



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 insight....life 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