Saturday, December 29, 2007


It is quite amazing how one word can capture an entire spiritual world outlook! In the course of our required daily routine of eating, often the salutation shared with the table is-"Bon Appetit!" What is wished for is that we enjoy and experience a hearty and healthy appetite, that the food we eat is consumed with relish, with taste buds bursting with flavor and every morsel filling us with pleasure. Needless to say, a good appetite is not always to be taken for granted. The ill, the elderly, not infrequently suffer from an absence of appetite that brings much sadness and frustration to their lives. Appetite is certainly a physiological , sensual even psychological capacity for which to be grateful.
The Hebrew language has two different words that are used as expressions of culinary greeting.
One, "Be'teiavon," meaning "with appetite," or one could say, with gusto and strong desire. This reflects the mind set of most people.It is synonymous with the above mention term-"bon appetit." Whenever I hear this wish expressed at my table, I am always reminded of a different Hebrew expression that suggests something of great spiritual importance. I am not referring to formal blessings prior to eating or drinking; this is an established practice among those who are religiously oriented. The word I have in mind is likewise articulated by those of a traditional religious inclination, a word that hearkens back to the Biblical mandate for the Grace After Meals. "La'Sovah"-to satisfaction is the salutation that bears with it the hope that the food to be eaten be a source of a satisfying experience leaving one thankful and grateful. The phrase in Deuteronomy-"You shall eat, be satisfied and bless the Lord" is implied in this one word that is derived from the second of the three activities indicated in this Mitzvah, in this religious act- Eat, be satisfied, bless.
Thus, the wish for a satisfying meal points less to our own personal, sensual experience and more to the Source of our gift of food with the awareness of being grateful and satisfied with the food that is available to us. Again, the blessing and the wish of "la'sovah"-may you experience contentment and gratefulness-is another everyday way by which to cultivate an enriching sense of gratefulness in our lives.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Why Meditate?

I am not an expert on meditation. As a matter of fact, I am currently struggling to reintroduce this practice more regularly into my routine of daily living. I am at this point, somewhat of a lapsed meditator. I meditate in fits and starts, but not on a disciplined, daily basis which I am convinced will help me open my heart to what I strive to attain, namely a heart of gratefulness. Yet, I feel strongly that the following considerations could be helpful to others.

As long as we live, our minds are alive with the uninterrupted process of thinking. Like a movie film, one scene follows another. Each clip may reflect ideas, worries, ambitions, fears, states of anger, desires, hurts and hopes. Thinking happens, and particular thoughts suggest our attachments to certain things. In the course of ordinary life, these attachments determine our behavior and interactions with others, the nature of our efforts and our undertakings, what we try to avoid and what we find ourselves drawn to.
When meditating, our minds act as observers of our thinking so that we can observe the content of our thought and not become enmeshed in them. The conscious discipline of meditation allows that part of us which is more natural and pristine, our ‘true selves’, if you wish, to find its spiritual expression and experience. Meditation offers us the gift of opening our hearts to a spiritual reality that the struggles of daily living make difficult to discover and attach to.
As we recognize worries and fears, sadness and anger, the many techniques of meditation- focusing on one’s breathing, utilizing a mantra-one word or a phrase repeated in our mind, visualizing an object of spiritual symbolic meaning-a flower, a flame of light- and many more, represent paths of inner awareness designed to open our hearts to truths that our minds crowd out of our consciousness.
We sit to meditate. We may feel upset, troubled by one problem or another, finding it impossible to halt obsessive worry and preoccupation with a challenge of a loss, a disappointment, or a personal failure. How do we overcome the persistence and intensity of these states of mind? Our minds seem to fill up with the negative, leaving no room for the positive, the hopeful, the sense of being grounded and optimistic. Meditation provides a path by which our painful attachments are set aside for a moment, giving us the light of the heart’s awareness of perspectives beyond that of the personal
and narrow , to those of a spiritual reality that touches upon a liberation from these attachments.
As our hearts open, our awareness of the goodness and love in life, that which reflects a sense of peace and harmony, a oneness, with ourselves and others, begins to unfold and replace the attachment to things, to people, desires, wealth, power,etc. Our everyday concerns do not magically disappear; they slip into the background making room for the gifts of spiritual consciousness.
As we practice more regularly, we begin to incorporate that way of understanding the world and life into our everyday experience. Our heart is more naturally open to respond to life with greater gratefulness and humble thanks.

Gratefulness-A Gauge of the Inner Life

Often I am not fully aware of how or what I feel. Feelings arise that are subtle, related to a whole panoply of both external circumstances and multiple internal interactions. Having been trained as a social worker and having personally experienced the psychotherapeutic process, I consider myself fairly attuned to my own feelings and the reasons for their presence at any given time in my life.
Yet, it is not uncommon to feel a gnawing but diffused sense of unease, even emotional discomfort and not have the ability to discern the fullness of their impact or the cause of their emergence in the mind.
Over the past number of years, as I have explored the centrality of gratefulness as a spiritual path in my life, I have discovered that the sense of gratefulness can serve as a most helpful barometer of my mood and general emotional state of mind .If the awareness of being grateful is absent from my consciousness, it is clear to me that I am unhappy about one thing or another and an imperceptible anger or resentment, fear or worry, hurt or grudge, has clouded my inner sense of what I should feel at a given moment. I ask myself the simple question: Are you able to feel grateful for your life? If I answer in the negative or with much qualification, it is apparent to me that something has gone awry in the unfolding of my emotional life that requires attention and personal spiritual intervention.
The feeling of gratefulness as a positive and enriching perception is like a light that can illuminate the darkness of one’s soul. I direct my prayer and meditation for its retrieval and restoration in my mind and heart. My prayers, being Jewish prayers, are saturated with praise emanating from a sense of gratefulness. I pray for the return of witnessing the wonder of my mere existence; in that way I become ‘worthy of prayer.’ I meditate on the ‘mantra’ of –“modeh Ani lefanecha”- I am thankful in Your Presence-the first three words of the first declaration of prayer uttered upon arising in the morning.
And if I am blessed with a renewed sense of gratefulness, I thank God for this gift.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


It's easy to praise Heschel; there is so much for which one can express tributes of the highest regard. In one spiritual context, Heschel rises to heights that are "le-eila u'leila"-beyond all imaginable heights.We can't judge Heschel as a 'pray-er;' but to me there was no one as eloquent and spiritually insightful about the meaning of prayer.

Among his most well-known statements about the purpose of prayer are the following:

"Prayer may not save us ,but prayer makes us worthy of praise."

"The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God."

"Prayer teaches us what to aspire to...prayer implants in us ideals we ought to cherish."

"Prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action; It is, rather like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness."

"The focus of prayer is not the beseeching Him for bread, there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy. This instant is prayer."

"Prayer is an invitation to God to intervene in our lives."

"The word of prayer is like a pledge in the making."( Curiously, this definition comes quite close to Mordechai Kaplan's 'naturalistic' understanding of prayer as a 'pledge of allegiance').

"Prayer begins where expression ends."

In sum ,prayer is the core of the religious quest as it directs our souls away from ourselves and our petty concerns to God and the concerns of others and the world. Prayer is an instrument that helps us play the song of spiritual maturity , seeing life and the world from the perspective of the transcendent Source of our existence and the wonder of all things.

Finally, prayer engenders gratefulness."It is gratefulness which makes the soul great."

We thank you again, noble and revered "rebbe."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


The Genesis narrative of the Torah gives way to Exodus, to oppression and eventual redemption.
This coming Shabbat, we begin the reading of Exodus. Moses is introduced, found floating in the water in a wicker basket by the Pharoah’s daughter. He grows up and “he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their suffering.”(Exodus 2:11) The act of seeing, witnessing contained in the Hebrew word –“VAYAR”- is the same as that used by the Torah to indicate God’s awareness of Israel’s suffering-“God looked upon-“VAYAR”-the Israelites and took notice of them.”(Exodus 2:25)
Moses’ soul fuses with that of God in his passionate concern for the suffering of others.
To Heschel, God is all concern.
”The God of the philosophers is all indifference; too sublime to possess a heart or to cast a glance at our world. His wisdom consists of being conscious of Himself and oblivious to the world. In contrast, the God of the prophets is all concern, too merciful to remain aloof to His creation. He not only rules the world in the majesty of His might; he is personally concerned and even stirred by the conduct and fate of man.” His mercy is upon all His works.’(Psalms 145:9)” (Man is Not Alone, p.244)
It is no accident or surprise that Heschel would march in the forefront of efforts on behalf of civil rights, in Anti Viet Nam War protests, for Soviet Jewry and Israel. Wherever human beings suffered, Heschel’s God of concern demanded his concern and passionate, prophetic outcry.
Heschel’s spiritually stunning soul embraced a piece of Moses as well. The world remains indebted, grateful. May that soul add to the illumination of God’s Presence above and below.


I am most grateful for my three-mile walk to shul on Shabbes. In an almost natural way, the act of walking becomes a meditative experience in which my mind focuses on the fragmented thoughts I entertain in preparation for conducting services at a small and quaint synagogue by the Chesapeake Bay.
Last Shabbat, when we read “ VAYCHI”- the closing chapters of Genesis, the Sabbath of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s thirty-fifth Yahrzeit, two Midrashim floated in my mind and effortlessly coalesced to connect to Heschel’s writings. The spirit of Biblical Jacob wafted through Heschel’s words.
Genesis 49:1 informs us that “ Jacob called his sons and said: ’Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.’ “ Instead, Jacob speaks to each of his sons about the son’s character and special gifts. Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, quoting Midrash Rabbah, 98:2, explains: “He sought to reveal the end of days and the Presence of God departed from him and he began to say other things.”
Why did the divine Presence depart? One can assume that as a rule, given his elevated spiritual status, Jacob was embraced by God: but at this particular moment, he experienced God’s sudden disappearance. Perhaps the fear and anguish of imminent death was a temporary distraction.
The Midrash continues to flesh out this critical and dramatic experience .He asks his sons:
"Is there a blemish in my bed?” Is there a distortion of perception, a sense of anticipating strife and disunity in the future which clouds my vision of the divine?
“His sons reply: Hear O Israel (Jacob’s changed name), the Lord our God the Lord is One. Just as there is nothing in our heart but oneness, so there is nothing in your heart but oneness. Then Jacob exclaimed: Blessed be the Name of His kingdom’s glory forever!”
The Schechinah, the Divine Presence , was retrieved. Once reassured that the future of the Jewish people would not crumble into fragments of disunity, quarreling and contentiousness, but that his descendents would strive for oneness, for unity and harmony in the world, Jacob was able to acknowledge God’s reality and the Schechinah was restored to his consciousness. According to the Sefat Emet, a 19th century Hassidic commentary, “to reveal the end” in fact meant to communicate the idea of ultimate harmony. Thus according to this thinker, Jacob did succeed in exposing the meaning of the future of the Jewish people by establishing his renewed faith in the ultimate harmony of all things under the Oneness of God.
Heschel links up the notion of God’s unity with the mystery of the universe and the kinship shared by all human beings. ”The intuition of that all-pervading unity has often inspired man with a sense of living in cosmic brotherhood with all beings…We are all-men, stars, flowers, birds- assigned to the same cast, rehearsing for the same inexplicable drama. We all have a mystery in common-the mystery of being.”
The Divine Presence becomes a reality in the context of human Oneness that embraces the harmony and love of all creatures of the One God.
A tantalizing “gematria”, an interpretation based on the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, reinforces the intimate intertwining of unity and love as manifestations of the Divine. “Echad”-One or Unique- has the numerical equivalence of 13.”Ahavah”-Love-likewise contains the sum of 13.Together, they add up to 26 which is the numerical value of the “tetragrammaton”- the original name of God- “Yud Heh Vav Heh.”

A second spiritual avenue by which the Schechinah re-appeared to Jacob is pointed to in the following Midrash: “ This is like the king’s friend who was about to depart the world, and his children gathered around his bed. He said to them: ‘Come, I shall reveal to you the secrets of the king.’
He raised his eyes and saw the king. Then he told them: Beware of the glory of the king.
So Jacob raised his eyes and saw the Shechinah standing over him. He told his sons-Beware (BE AWARE) of the glory of God.” (Genesis Rabbah 98:3)
The awareness of the divine is not equal to or a prerequisite for the forecasting of the future’s secrets. The future belongs to God. The Divine Presence that we can behold is the glory, the wonder and awe of the world. “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things are not only what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something else. Awe is a sense for the transcendence…It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine…”(Who is Man? P.88-89)
While many mystics believe in “gigul neshamot’-the transmigration of souls- most of us are highly skeptical. In a compelling sense, however, Heschel’s life and work reflect a piece of the soul of Jacob our Father. Abraham Joshua Heschel illumined our lives with the soul of Abraham’s allness and hessed (compassion); he likewise blessed us with a ‘Jacobean’ understanding of how to perceive the divine around us, through oneness and wonder.
For all this and more, we are ever grateful.

Friday, December 21, 2007


It was a harrowing experience . I was so anxious that I missed my appointment for an entrance interview to the Jewish Theological Seminary. I thank God it was rescheduled , for two reasons. One, I was given another chance at becoming a rabbi-a life-long dream.Two, Heschel, who had not been selected to sit on my originally scheduled interviewing committee, volunteered to participate at the rescheduled time.
I am convinced to this day that without him being there, I would never have been accepted to the Rabbinical School.
I don't recall the other participants by name or face. I do remember how intimidating I felt they were. Heschel was the only one whose compassionate countenance and reassuring words gave me the confidence and calm necessary to conduct myself in such a way that I would be considered eligible for the rabbinate. Without Heschel, I don't think that I would have become a rabbi.(I am sure that some cynics may feel that this would not have been so terrible after all, as the very old jest has it: What kind of job is being a rabbi for a nice Jewish boy?)
Heschel was my teacher . I completed a project for him one summer translating large segments of "Mishnat HaZohar," a kabbalistic work authored by one of Gershon Scholem's oustanding students and then colleague, Yeshayahu Tishby, of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. It was an amazing academic experience.
A confession. Reading "The Sabbath"-Heschel's masterpiece on the meaning of the Sabbath, for the first time at the age of twenty was a personal disappointment. I felt it was not intellectually profound enough; it was too poetic, too subjective, not philosophically penetrating. Looking back, I realize the folly of my youth.
Now when I read "The Sabbath" I am not only impressed, I am inspired, his words touching not my mind as much as my heart and soul. I can think of no greater work that conveys the unique and sacred character of this 'palace in time,' this monument to the Jewish spirit.
Heschel's exposition on the sanctity of time is among the finest interpretations of time's sacred significance that I can ever imagine.
I will always be grateful to this spiritual giant. May his 'Heavenly Neshama', his soul, continue its ascent to the loftiest heights of God's Presence. Amen
The Grateful rabbi

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Thirty five ago, on this Shabbat, Parashat VAYECHI, a poetic, even prophetic voice was silenced. The light of a dazzling spiritual luminary was extinguished. Abraham Joshua Heschel died. While it is a time of sadness and loss, in Hassidic tradition it is also a time of celebration and gratefulness acknowledging the return of a heavenly 'neshamah', soul to its spiritual home in the Presence of Holy One, Blessed be He.
The first word of the Torah reading this Sabbath suggests and proclaims-"And he lived,"or more 'midrashically' , if taking some grammatical latitude-"And he will live!" Not only was Heschel's life filled with events of revolution and change ie. the Civil Rights movement, the Viet Nam War , events to which he responded with revelatory brilliance and insight, but his words continue to echo in the minds and souls of Jew and non-Jew alike; wherever there is a need for justice, for peace, for human kindness and understanding, for a sense of wonder and gratefulness to God, there will we discover, in the poetic philosophy and scholarship of our modern patriarchal Abraham, the resonance of justice, hope, concern, clarity and genuine courage. "Va Yechi" and he will live! Heschel lives on , continuing to illuminate our world in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.
Several years before Heschel’s death in 1972, he suffered a near fatal heart attack from which he never fully recovered. A disciple, (Rabbi Samuel Dresner) traveled to his apartment to see him. Rabbi Heschel spoke slowly and with some effort. “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.” He added: “This is what I meant when I wrote (in the preface of his book of Yiddish poems):” “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.” (Yiddish-Khob gebetn vunder anshtok glik, un du host zey mir gegebn)
On the Shabbat of Heschel's yahrzeit (anniversary of death), we can best honor his blessed memory by experiencing Shabbat as a temple in time, a day of wonder and gratefulness, at least for one eternal moment.
Shabbat Shalom.
I will ,God willing, share further reflections on Heschel and gratefulness next week.


Abraham, the founder of the Jewish faith, emerges according to Jewish tradition as the embodiment of the spiritual characteristic of compassion and loving-kindness. This singular definition of his spiritual identity can be associated with one particular verse, which describes his reality toward the end of his life. “And God blessed Abraham –“BAKOL”- in all things , with everything. What was the need to add “everything” if the obvious implication of blessing is precisely that, in which case the text could have read: “And God blessed Abraham!” The word “BAKOL”-with everything, seems superfluous. Nachmanides, the great 13th century exegete, understands this verse to mean that Abraham was blessed with the divine attribute of “allness.” That is, the ability to perceive “allness” is a way of comprehending the divine, and coping with evil and suffering.
Furthermore, this internal cognition finds its natural external expression in acts of “chessed”, in relating to others, to oneself and to the entire world of God’s creation, with compassion and kindness. In light of this passage occurring immediately after the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, the notion of God’s blessing of “allness” takes on a particular poignancy.
If one understands all of life as a gift from a Divine Source, what other way is there for us to respond if not with compassion, generosity and love? To be compassionate to all of life is to be godly, to share in God’s understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. It is this particular perspective that accounts for Abraham’s extraordinary relationship with God. The broader one’s view of life, taking in its many wonders and diversities, grandeur and vastness, the more successfully can one cope with life’s sorrows and suffering.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"ALLNESS" -an antidote to human suffering

Sometimes, free translations, meant to broaden understanding, end up limiting a fuller scope of textual interpretation. In examining the Grace After Meals as a source of insight regarding the perspective of "ALLNESS," I discovered that the Siddur Sim Shalom commits an unintentioned result when it translates-"VE-AL HA-KOL...ANACHNU MODIM LACH-"For all this we thank You." The implication of KOL - ALL, is constricted to 'all this,' referring to the previous enumeration of gifts having been bestowed upon us.
Literally, however, the phrase "VE- AL HA-KOL" is translated in other prayer books as -"For EVERYTHING...we thank You."
I prefer the latter translation since it opens the widest range of reasons for gratefulness. We can express gratefulness for everything! Yet, this creates a theological dilemma. If everything includes those things that are bad and painful, is it psychologically or morally consistent with our feelings of gratefulness? Are we to thank God for the bad as well? Are we capable of doing so? Tradition decides in the affirmative, declaring that just as we praise for the good we are obligated to express praise when the bad occurs as well.For this reason, at the time of death we recite a blessing-God is praised as the -DAYAN HA-EMET-The Righteous , steadfast and loyal Judge.(Talmud Berachot 54b)
The premise of God as the Source of all things confronts us with the apparent contradiction between God as beneficent and the reality of evil and suffering in the world. If God is the reason for everything, He is also the creator of that which is evil, the cause of so much agony and pain. Interestingly, the Biblical source of the opening blessing referred to in the last posting-PRAISED ARE YOU... MAKER OF PEACE AND CREATOR OF ALL THINGS, is Isaiah 45:7 where the text reads a little differently: “I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create WOE.”
The Hebrew word for “woe” is “Ra”, also meaning evil or bad. With its ascription of “ra”, of evil, to God, this passage poses a serious theological challenge. By altering the original text to read: "He created everything”, and conveying to the worshiper the perception of the totality, the “allness” of life, the prayer book helps us relate to that which is regarded as “evil” by either making an effort to erase or transform it, or by realizing that the all-embracing quality of life eclipses the reality of evil.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, perhaps the finest Orthodox Jewish thinker of our generation, states this approach in the following way:
“The prayer connects the cosmic order with an ethical category: God is the Creator of light and darkness, the Maker of peace and all things. The word “hakol”, “all”, means not only the tangible natural phenomena but ethical ideas as well. “Hakol” in this context serves as a substitute for “ra”, evil…Indeed, the word “hakol” offers an explanation of the phrase “creates evil”, in Isaiah. “Ra” is only an illusion, a non-being which one apprehends when beholding only a minute segment of creation…Yet, within the greater, all-inclusive perspective, embracing the totality of being, it is part of an organic whole. Evil is dissolved into the universal pattern of goodness…Creation is an all-encompassing act..."

The ability to surpass psychology and meet the metaphysical is perhaps the most difficult demand of the spiritual life. Is the reality of evil such that it cannot be transcended or transformed? The avenue of gratefulness contributes greatly to this process of self-surpassing and finding our way to touching the transcendent so that “evil is dissolved into the pattern of goodness”.
By no means do I suggest that evil be ignored or relegated to the world of illusion. Soloveitchik continues: " Evil does exist… one must never acquiesce in evil, make peace with it or condone it. Defiance of and active opposition to evil, employing all means that God put at man’s disposal, is the dominant norm in Halacha (Jewish law).”
Gratefulness, which has the power of helping the individual approach evil metaphysically, that is to transcend it and connect to the good, at the same time can become the vehicle for translating the metaphysical into an ethical response of “Chessed,” of compassion and love. Gratefulness without kindness to others is incomplete at best, self-serving at worst. For gratefulness to serve as a conduit of fullest spiritual expression, it must be inextricably connected to ACTS of loving kindness and compassion as well.
Further thoughts on ALLNESS will continue.
Gratefully, The Grateful Rabbi

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


I have just returned from morning services. It was a very cold morning and we were short of a minyan -a quorum of ten adult Jews- by two.Understandably, the cold and slippery surfaces discourage many, especially the elderly, to venture forth from their homes. It is safer and more comfortable to stay indoors. Curiously, however, as I grow older , I find daily services to be most refreshing and reinvigorating. Aside from having a full and alert morning in which to enjoy the hours, the prayers serve as spiritual springboards to gratefulness feeling and awareness.
Many feel grateful for personal success and well-being. But most of us have difficulty enhancing our consciousness of the myriad gifts shared by all, regularly and ordinarily. One blessing, the opening blessing of the formal morning prayers , is particularly enlightening in this regard.
Praised are You.....creating light and fashioning darkness , the Maker of peace and all things.
I gaze out the window at the sun's rays and realize the gift of light that belongs to all. It is a free gift that brightens our lives and spirits if we would just acknowledge this reality with attention and awareness.
Perhaps the most dramatic and penetrating phrase of this prayer is the perception of thankfulness for the 'allness,' the totality of life, the fullest spectrum of the universe which is simply there, awaiting our response of gratefulness and wonder.
The NY Times this morning, in its Science section, carried an article entitled : Laws of Nature, Source Unknown-Which came first:the order or the universe. This article debated the issue of whether the universe is governed by a single law , several laws or whether all is randomly determined. The author makes a good point when stating : "The law of no law is still a law". Despite the world's complexity, I believe that it is difficult to deny the wonder of what is and the amazement associated with our ability to even raise the question of ' forever or emergent ' in attempting to understand reality more clearly.
Prayer therefore is the vehicle for deepened discernment of what I would like to call ' the divine' in life.
Essentially, therefore, when granted the privilege of birth, of life, we are given an all- embracing gift for free.
The notion of "allness" will be explored further tomorrow, God willing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Gratefulness Greeting

One of the threads of civil society is the extension of formal greetings among its members. Greetings vary , of course , depending on culture and circumstance. Today, we are surrounded by "Holiday Greetings"- for the Christian community, "Merry Christmas " is the appropriate wish. "Happy Hannukah", for Jews and a "Happy Kwanza" for those with African roots and an Afro-American cultural background. For those of us who wish to remain all inclusive and non specific, the greeting of the day would be-"Happy Holidays!"
When we run into a friend or acquaintance, an expression of our concern and interest is usually articulated in the query-"How are you?" However sincere or rote- like the tone of the inquiry , it remains a necessary part of common human interaction. Responses to this question vary too, from a formal to a more personal, in-depth reply.
Among traditional Jews, when asked about their wellbeing and that of their loved ones, the response is not one pf providing information as much as one of gratefulness, almost a miniature prayer. "Baruch Hashem"- Blessed be Hashem, God, is the instinctive retort. Somewhat amusingly, it has been said that upon hearing that reply the recipient would come back with a response of some irritation-"I asked how you are, not for a prayer!"
But if one examines this traditional Jewish reply with an open heart , I believe that we can discover a powerful, yet brief and simple way by which to regularly construct an attitude of gratefulness in our lives. Whether the news is "good"or "bad," whether there is health or illness, success or failure, prosperity or want, the answer to life in its totality remains steady and certain-'Baruch Hashem"- I thank the Source of Life for whatever I have.
In the ordinary , everyday encounter, we are offered the opportunity to refine our conscious awareness of life's wonders.
Whatever the nature of greetings you may be met with at this season of the year, to greet them with gratefulness is a response that can be shared by all.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Is Revelation Real??

The seed of my search for gratefulness could be understood as a moment of 'revelation,' of 'grace,' a gift from a mysterious source-God??? On what basis can I make this radical and presumptuous assertion?
Firstly, the experience was so all encompassing, almost pure, that it had to convey a genuineness of the human spirit.
Secondly, while experiences of godly communication are related to with great skepticism by "normative' Judaism, nevertheless, the following excerpt seems to suggest that God may indeed speak to us , especially through the human heart.
The grandson of the Besht, the founder of Hassidism, R. Baruch of Medzibezh, describes the study of Torah in the following way:
“The principle is that everyone has first to hear in his heart…and afterwards to study what the heart is hearing…and this is the meaning of the Torah that is studied for its own sake, to illumine in the Torah what he has heard in his heart…and if he did so, then the Torah will illumine in his soul, and this is the meaning of the dictum ’the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Torah and Israel are one.’”
My quest for the last 5 years has been the study of what my heart heard one misty autumn morning amidst the trees and rolling hills of upstate NY.
The study of Torah is an unfolding of commentary based on the text of that moment of spiritual giftedness. We need not await a heavenly voice- we are surrounded by the gifts of the Ultimate Giver every moment of our lives.
As we anticipate the arrival of Shabbat, which for me is the quintessential DAY OF GRATEFULNESS, my wish is that we all celebrate Shabbat in the recognition of the goodness of life and its myriad gifts.
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Journey to Gratefulness: The Genesis

The notion of gratefulness was not always a priority of my mind, heart or soul. As a matter of fact, to feel grateful was no easy task. Not uncommonly, I shared in a popular Jewish past time known as kvetching. If I didn't complain openly, my mind was often filled with thoughts of persistent dissatisfaction.
And then, several years ago, I took a leap of faith and attended a rabbinic retreat sponsored by Elat Hayyim, a spiritual retreat center, spending 5 days in silent meditation . It was during that experience, unexpectedly and overwhelmingly, that I had an epiphany, a personal experience of revelation.
Since that moment, I have devoted a major part of my devotional and spiritual life to the continued cultivation of the sense of wonder and gratefulness in the presence of God and the world.
The five day retreat was designed for rabbis and other leaders of the Jewish community to engage them in the spiritual approach of mindfulness meditation. Each day was devoted entirely to sitting and walking meditations and was spent in silence (no easy task for a group of rabbis) during which participants had no contact with the outside world. The only exception was to address questions of clarification to our teachers and to articulate concerns during individual mentoring evaluations.
It was, I believe, the second or third night of the retreat. I was unable to sleep; I was restless with numbness – my heart and mind were blocked of any genuine emotion and connection. All I could sense was the emptiness of isolation. In the middle of the night, not having slept a wink, I made my way into the cool night and began to jog. Finally, fatigue overcame me and I was able to sleep for a few hours.
That morning, during a sitting meditation, which typically began at 6:15am and lasted an hour, I focused upon the first Jewish prayer in the morning upon awakening, “Modeh Ani” – “I thank you" (for waking up another morning). I then proceeded to recite the formal morning prayers wearing the Tallit (Prayer shawl) and Tefillin (phylacteries). I stepped over to a corner of the large meditation room, placed the prayer shawl over my head, and suddenly, without warning, was gripped by a torrent of uncontrolled sobbing. It was as if floodgates of feeling that had been dammed up in my heart had suddenly burst open and for what seemed like an eternity, my body heaved with the eruption of tears and feelings that seemed to have sprung from the deepest wellsprings of my soul. I couldn’t stop. As I wept, all I could feel was the sensation of being thankful, and I repeated to myself, over and over again, “thank you, thank you God”, - “Modeh Ani lefanehcha” – “I am thankful before You”. There was nothing specific for which I was grateful – simply for being alive, for being blessed with a heart that was finally open and receptive to feeling fully alive and fully conscious, that somewhere there was something, something intimate and indispensable for the fullness of my life, something to which or to whom I was profoundly grateful.
This time the words of the prayer became a living, genuine reality. No matter how brief, transient and temporary it was, in those few moments, I understood the meaning of prayer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gratefulness and Hannukah

It's the last day of Hannukah and all through the house.....oops, sorry for the slip! Seriously though, as Hannukah winds down, I review the last 8 days in the silence of my mind. I kindled the candles, played the dreidel, ate the latkes and gave the gifts- all the concrete activities of the holiday. Beyond the outward celebration, however,my meditations reminded me of the core spiritual dimension of Hannukah and for that matter , of all the Jewish festivals. I repeatedly contemplated the rabbinic rationale of the holiday, captured in the Aramaic phrase-"Pirsumah Nisah"-publicizing the miracle. I would like to offer a re-interpretation of this term.
I would translate these Aramaic words as -revealing the miraculous!!!
Hassidic literature points to the analogy between the lights of Hannukah and the hidden lights of the human soul. The objective of Hanukah therefore, is to elicit the light of one's spirit, bring it to the fore and make it a revealed expression of divinity for others and for oneself.
As the lights are lit, the dark corners of our souls can be illuminated and purified through the traditional Jewish responses of spiritual engagement in Torah and the performance of Mitzvot, of sacred acts of kindness and compassion. As we recognize the miraculous in Jewish life and in life in general, how can we not be cognizant of the great gift of being alive? How can we not be grateful ?
Kindling lights on Hannukah-the one and only religious requirement-( I hate to disappoint those who thought that latkes, presents and dreidels were statutes from Sinai)-is intended to make us aware of the wonder of our history and of our current lives and respond with hearts filled with joyful gratefulness- " This is the day the Lord has created, let us rejoice and be grateful on it."
May we continue to shine the lights of our souls throughout the year until next Hannukah; may it arrive amidst the light of peace for Israel and all the human community.Amen.
Gratefully, The Grateful Rabbi

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A new beginning

I begin this website with some trepidation. I have always been somewhat shy, and to put my ideas out into the public domain is somewhat daunting. I guess that the timing is significant in a symbolic way. We celebrate Hannukah, a time of "Pirsuma Nisah"- publicizing the miracle of the occasion by placing lights in the public domain. Perhaps for me the stepping out into the domain of the internet is an act of personal miracle.
My spiritual focus has been and will continue to be the centrality of gratefulness in one's life and the need to cultivate awareness of that experience and perspective to not only gain happiness but to better our lives and the lives of others. In Jewish tradition, each day is bracketed by the first word uttered upon awakening - Modeh - I thank - and the last word - Shema - Hear O Israel which according to some opinions is not only an assertion of God's uniqueness but also an articulation of God's praise. Thus, we begin and end each day with a response of gratefulness and in between we recite, according to tradition, a minimum of 100 blessings saturating our consciousness with gratefulness and wonder.
I hope to share these reflections frequently not only to invite responses which I warmly welcome but to engage in a meditation on gratefulness by placing thoughts and feelings in the public domain.
Let me add that I have written two books on gratefulness, neither one published as yet, and am currently involved in trying to cobble together commentaries on the Jewish prayer book which will serve as a text for a more spiritually meaningful prayer experience. I hope to share with you excerpts of those works along with on-going reflections on gratefulness as they become available to my heart each day.
The Grateful Rabbi