Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A New anagrammatic association for Hannukkah

Hannukah is a playful holiday . While the game of dreidel has become an integral part of its experience  as a playful activity, the occasion has also  elicited a wide array of imaginative word associations that lend broader meanings and interpretations to understanding the holiday’s essential significance.

Examples abound. The word for the heroes of Hannukah,” Maccabbee,” represent an acrostic of the well-known biblical phrase-”Who can be compared to You among the mighty” / “מי כמוכה באלים יהוה” (Exodus 15:11) .The first letters of this phrase form the Hebrew spelling for Maccabbee-: מכבי.

The name of the holiday itself- “Hannukah”(“-חנוכה-”) has been understood as containing two words indicating the date of the event-חנו/”they camped” -on כ”ה-the 25th of the month (Kislev).

Even the number of days of the holiday-eight(-שמונה- ) has had its letters  rearranged to spell other words(-נשמה-) or soul; or a word contained in the Hebrew word for eight spells “ שמן “-(oil), the very substance of the Hannukah narrative.

Perhaps the most popular letters of Hannukkah are those inscribed on the four sides of the dreidel-נ-(nun); ג-(gimel); ה-(hay); ש-(shin). These letters constitute  the beginnings of the phrase “-נס גדול היה שם-” [“ A great miracle happened there (Israel).” ] Furthermore,each letter is the first of yiddish words that indicate the result of each spin of the dreidel. Depending on which side of the dreidel appears when the spinning ends, the participant takes the entire ante-(gimel for “ganz”-all), or nothing, ( nun for “nicht”),or half (hay,”halb”, or add to the ante (shin for “shtel”), put in.

It occurred to me that these letters can spell out a very suggestive word that may bespeak a particular  dimension of the miraculous in Hannukkah and in life in general.
This word ” נגש”, meaning  “to approach, to draw close, to step forward, even to confront,” brings to mind salient instances of our ancestors’ posture  of courage vis a vis God Himself or in the presence of daunting authority  in moments of crisis. Abraham , we are told, stepped forward to argue with God on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah (Genesis 18: 23). Moses demonstrates boldness as he approaches the thick cloud where God is while the people remain at a distance out of fear. (Exodus 20:18) Curiously, the portion of the Torah read the shabbat after Hannukah begins with the word ”-ויגש-” (“and he drew near”)-referring to Judah’s daring confrontation of Joseph, still disguised as the vizier of Egypt, in order to rescue his brothers from imprisonment, even death.

Thus, the notion of the heroic emerges from the playfulness of Hannukah’s special vocabulary. Indeed, it becomes evident that the essential miracle of Hannukah is reflected in the heroism of the Maccabees, the few against the many, those armed not with the state of the art weaponry of war but with the commitment to a spiritual ideal of one’s right to independence of worship and belief and the exercise of those beliefs in the context of freedom and  human dignity.

There remains one more letter to those on each side of the dreidel-that is the letter “ ה”-” hay. “ It is common knowledge that this letter when accented is an abbreviation for the Name of the Divine.Thus, it elicits associations to the holy, the godly ,that which transcends our more limited perception of reality’s totality.

 One could deduce from the above interpretation that the recognition and awareness of the divine can inspire a spiritual stepping forward and resolute response to the challenges of life in spite of the obstacles necessary to overcome. Perhaps the very willingness to confront life boldly is, in itself, a reaching out to the divine,to the miraculous, to the glowing light of the Hannukah menorah.

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

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.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Shavuot-Intimations of Gratitude

Why Shavuot? The conventional answer lies in the Scriptural passage that reads:..."then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks....." Deut.16:10. The word Shavuot contains the words for "week,"-SHAVUA, "seven"-SHEVAH- and "oath," - SHEVUAH. Seven weeks after the Passover, the feast is celebrated as a harvest festival-"you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord." Lev.23:16. As the traditional time of the Giving of the Torah, we re-enact the posture of our ancestors at Sinai by pledging ourselves-taking a renewed oath-to receive the Torah and follow its teachings.
As a seeker of the spiritual dimension of gratitude, I would like to suggest a different interpretation of the meaning of Shavuot by analyzing the festival's name from another perspective.
Examining the root of Shavuot, we discover the following consonants: SH-V-AH-ש-ב-ע: These three letters spell a different word if  the "sh" consonant is changed to a "s"-we then have before us a word whose meaning is "satisfaction"-SOVAH!
Shavuot is referred to in the talmud as ATZERET- the festival of culmination, completing a process of redemption begun on Passover. This process reaches its peak with Revelation  on Shavuot. Thus, I suggest that the Festival of "Satisfaction"-gratefulness- becomes a time when we re-encounter the spiritual truth of gratitude as a source of joy, celebration and wisdom. Torah as enlightenment  embraces the wisdom of recognizing the gift of blessings bestowed upon us and experiencing the gratitude that flows from this revelation.
It is my hope that we all be blessed with the capacity to reach the peak of Sinai in our embrace of gratitude's serenity and joy.
Hag Sameach.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Leash

sun shimmering across the river
lifting its light, linking east with west,
above and beyond a blue heaven 
awaiting  prayers of tired tongues,
breezes brushing sweaty brows,
and the breath,seeking its way 
to the early morning winds.

along the dry land’s edge 
white hair mirroring the fluff on the leash
tugging tenderly
loosening loneliness with each curled, gnarly cuff

every morning
piously, devotedly,
a pilgrimage to nowhere

Is this a way of worship?
strolling  secure in Dog’s protection?

a ferry ‘s horn fills the early mist
a leash from dock untied
riders sleepily  seated
the horn heralds a new day of loneliness

the sun’s light-
canopy of blue
humming winds
river’s rippling hushes
a leash i tug at gently, assured
I will not drift alone,lost

in the reaches of nothingness.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Down by the Riverside

It stands at river’s edge,
bulb-like, beak-long head
stretching east
to the rising sun,
the towering metropolis
whose honking horns,
muted in the mist of the far away,
give way 
to the honk 
of the goose.

Honk, honk
out of my way-sorrow and joys of the past,
out of my way-hopes and fears of tomorrow
clear the way for cool breezes that flutter feathers,
swerve aside for the sun’s warmth and its sparkling ripples
on river’s flow
be silent 
so the brushing of milky bubbles
against  blackened rocks
can add a chorus of whispers to
the honking melody, a hymn to being alive-now. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Gratitude-The Messianic Ideal

The Passover season brings to mind thoughts of redemption and freedom, renewal and  rebirth, and the prospect for achieving the ideal in life.  Ancient stories of redemption flow into hopes for freedom in our own time; the process of human betterment remains on-going , elusive , yet very much a part of our faith in the possibility of its realization. Messianic impulses infuse our cherished Passover rituals and sacred practices-Elijah the Prophet , Miriam  the sister of Moses- always invited to every Seder table with the dream of eventual redemption shining in the eyes of every participant. The final words of the Seder -”Next Year in Jerusalem”-reflect the hope of redemption and the advent of the Messianic Age, the end of an exile of homelessness and persecution, the restoration of collective Jewish glory , and the emergence of a world order based on harmony, justice and peace.
The Messianic idea lies at the very  heart of the Jewish experience. This  notion of human improvement also  reverberates in almost  every other religious or spiritual orientation.  Cultural conceptions  may vary,  yet in the  nature of being human is embedded  the evolutionary  idea  and awareness of a future that can represent an improvement over the present, both individually and collectively. 
Beginning with the early prophets of Israel, the end of days would be characterized by peace and harmony, justice and well-being, among humans and in fact among all living things. “But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse...the spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him...justice shall be the girdle of his loins ..the wolf will dwell with the lamb...in all My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done.”
 Another example of this promise and  vision  is the following: “...in the days to come.....they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

What , in the opinion of the later Rabbinic tradition, is the nature of the Messianic Era?  In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151,b, we are informed of two prominent opinions in this regard. Samuel says : The only difference between normal times and the days of the Messiah is שיעבוד מלכויות-the end of Israel’s oppression by the kingdoms of the world ; Rabbi Yochanan is of the opinion that the messianic era will be characterized as a timeשאין בו זכות ואין בו חובה - ‘ there will be no sense of merit  ie. reward or liability and guilt, ie. punishment.‘  Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, interprets “merit and obligation” as pointing to a time when all people will be sufficiently affluent ie. without material need, so that there will be no necessity to limit one’s generosity and tighten one’s hand and heart out of fear of not having enough for oneself.
  Whether the Messianic era was viewed as entirely supernatural- the product of God’s mercy with humanity’s contribution secondary  or the more naturalistic and rational understanding of a time of Israel’s subjugation by the gentiles coming to an end, the inescapable reality of messianic times are those that reflect a human condition of amelioration and blessing.

The rabbinic tradition expands imaginatively in its projections on this end of days as encompassing a myriad of new and unprecedented human realities. “In the time to come, the Holy One will innovate ten things- He will illumine the whole world.. even when  a man is sick, God will order the sun to heal him...the second thing, He will bring out living waters from Jerusalem to heal all those who have a disease...the third thing, He will make the trees yield their fruit each month...the fourth thing, all the waste cities will be rebuilt...the fifth thing, He will rebuild Jerusalem with sapphire stones...the sixth, the cow and the bear shall feed together...the seventh, He will bring all the wild beasts, birds, and creeping things and make a covenant with them and with all Israel...the eighth, there be no more weeping and wailing in the world...the ninth, there will be no more death in the world...and the tenth is that there will no longer be any sighing, wailing or anguish, but all will be rejoicing.”

From the aforementioned it is obvious  that the end of days or in the time to come or the messianic era - whichever term one prefers- all convey  a reality in which all human frailty and need, the instinctual and inborn inclinations leading to wrong doing, self-destruction and the harm of others will all miraculously vanish , and a new being will emerge, utterly joyful and immortal. Sinful man will be restored to his glorious Edenic  existence.
An interesting outgrowth of this envisioned reality is the rendering obsolete of  the entire structure of the religious edifice that in this world is indispensable for human survival in a moral and civilized way. If conditions are such that all those factors that render the human vulnerable to wrongdoing and suffering are no longer in place, then in fact the antidotes against these proclivities likewise can be viewed as no longer necessary. Once the  body is healed of its infection, antibiotics are useless. 
Thus, in the mind of the rabbis, it follows that in the time to come all the appurtenances of religion will no longer be required -prayer, ritual, Torah  guides of proper conduct , will have  all become obsolete.
 Yet, according to an extraordinary Midrash presented  below,  while all cultic offering will be abolished at the end of time, one will survive, the thanksgiving offering.  This offering was not obligatory; it was not occasioned by sinfulness or guilt nor even by “the motives that induced Israelites to pledge votive sacrifices when confronted by danger.”

So significant was this offering that the Sages bestowed upon both offering and prayer whose purpose and intention is to express gratitude, an everlasting place in the spiritual experience of the Jewish people , transcending  all time and space.
In Leviticus Rabbah, chapter 9, section 7 we read:
......לעתיד לבוא כל הקרבנות בטלין וקרבן תודה אינו בטל כל התפילות בטלות ההודאה אינה בטלה הדא הוא  דכתיב(ירמיהו לג, יא )   “קול ששון וקול שמחה קול חתן וקול  כלה קול  אומרים  הודו את  יי צבאות וגו”  זו הודאה “מביאים תודה בית ה’ זה קרבן תודה וכן דוד אומר (תהילים נו,יג ) “עלי אלהים נדריךאשלם תודות לך “ תודה אין כתיב כאן אלא “תודות” ההודאה וקרבן תודה.”
“In time to come ie. Messianic age, all offerings will be eliminated; however, the thanksgiving offering will not ; furthermore, all prayers will be abolished but not the prayer of thanksgiving. As it is written- Jeremiah 33,11- “ the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, the voice of those who call out, ‘Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts etc.’ “ this is a prayer of thanksgiving, “as they bring thanksgiving offerings to the House of the Lord.” This is a thanksgiving offering.  Likewise David declares- Psalm 56,13-” I must pay my vows to You, O God; I will render thank offerings to You”-It is not written offering(in singular form) but offerings- plural-which includes both prayers of thanksgiving and a thanksgiving offering.”
How are we to understand this challenging midrash! Moreover, if  Messianic times refer to an eschatological transformation of cosmic proportions, the question of the need for the continuance of the thanksgiving offering becomes even more perplexing.
Assuming that the Messianic era will be such to obviate the need for offerings and prayers entirely, why will the one offering or prayer connected to gratitude persist?
Why the need to somehow connect to gratefulness when one finds oneself in a spiritual state of perfection? I would answer that the power of gratitude is such that it transcends all boundaries of our mortality and finitude. Whether in the here-and -now or some utopian future time, awareness of life as a gift is the unchangeable constant. Moreover, one could argue that under conditions of utter, utopian  fulfillment the response of gratitude is even more compelling!
It is believed  by many  that messianic expectations should be held in abeyance until some distant far away time; it is utopian in nature, and dependent on the miraculous intervention of a divine source. To intervene would suggest the lack of faith if not an actual act of heresy. All we can do is prepare ourselves spiritually to be receptive  to and deserving of the Messiah’s appearance. 
I cannot help but hear the echos of a popular refrain of the Chabad movement -”We want Mashiach now!” This insistence finds expression in the  militant activity of this movement to increase and expand all forms of Jewish religious  behavior among the Jewish people.

While precedents abound dictating the above mentioned  responses to the eventual advent of Messiah’s coming, I would prefer to understand the messianic reality in the framework of this world and in the context of everyday living.
The remarkable midrash that declares the thanksgiving offering to endure for all time suggests to me that when we are able to capture and cultivate moments of gratitude in our spiritual lives, footsteps of the Messiah echo in our ordinary experience. I would further maintain, in the spirit of the midrash that states with utter confidence the future  abolition of offerings and prayers that are related to human desires and need,  that prayers of petition are of secondary importance, if not  ultimately unnecessary, if we strive to touch messianic strains in our ordinary lives. To the contrary! As long as our prayer is dominated by our needs, we are inhibited from translating our yearnings toward the transcendent in ways that reflect our thanksgiving and gratitude! The offering and prayers of thanksgiving will remain an integral part of the messianic reality, what ever that may mean. It is clear to me that our Rabbis understood that the essence of Jewish worship is inextricably linked to our capacity to view and respond to a transcendent reality from the perspective of experiencing all things as gifts for which to be thankful and grateful. It is said that the Sabbath is “a foretaste of eternity.”
If we wish to gain another flavor of messianic time, the taste is not in heaven or beyond the sea but in our hearts and minds to rediscover daily  the power of “modeh ani,” “ I thank You,” of infusing the first moments of our daily awakening with the richness of gratitude and thanksgiving,
 and allow that awareness to flow along the river of our lives. Perhaps the freedom celebrated and yearned for on Passover  is  indeed within the grasp of a grateful heart.
(see The Gratefulness Prayer Book- Siddur Modeh Ani-Glazer-Xlibris-2013)

I wish to express my deep gratitude to my son, Jeremiah, for his invaluable comments and insights.