Thursday, November 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 9, 2017

Grateful for the challenge of the heart on Succoth

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

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

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

Grateful for the Soul-Post Yom Kippur

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Grateful for Rosh Hashanah as a festival of Freedom

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Grateful for Time-The gift of a New Year

A man was leisurely looking up at the clouds and identifying various shapes. This led him to talk to God.
“God,” he said, “how long is a million years?”
God answered,”In my frame of reference, it’s about a minute.”
The man asked again,”God, how much is a million dollars?”
God answered, “ To Me,it’s a penny.”
The man then asked,  “God, may I have a penny?”
God replied, “In a minute!”

With the beginning of a New Year our attention is focused sharply on the passing of time. To quote Richard Dawkins-”Time is pretty mysterious stuff-almost as elusive and hard to pin down as conscious awareness.”(Science in the Soul-p.329)
Objectively the notion of time’s passage is determined by astronomy-the rotation of the earth around the moon and the sun. The measurement of time is humanly constructed. The experience of time is highly subjective. If one is sitting ‘shiva” the mourning period ,time is agonizingly slow.If one is in the midst of a joyous celebration, time flies.

Every day each one of us is given the identical amount of a fresh supply of time-this day of 24 hours of 60 minutes each is our gift of life,

Rosh Hashanah is a new beginning,a time for a revisit of the notion of time and its value to us.

In Judaism, time is of the essence. As Heschel wrote so magnificently in his book on the Sabbath, Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.
How do we sanctify time?

We are provided with holy days- Shabbat, festivals in each season.But what does the word holiness or sanctity mean? Many are the interpretations.
Holy is godly , something set apart from the ordinary and considered uniquely special. 
May I suggest  a formulaic interpretation that may help us sanctify time-our lives-in the New Year.
 I see holiness as containing three component parts, each one beginning with the letter “A.”

Like the triple A batteries, holiness allows us to reinvigorate  and energize our spirits and souls so as to live life to the fullest and not waste or kill or avoid the time that is given us.

Each day, by dint of our awareness, we can arrive at a fullness of being alive which not only brings joy and fulfillment to us, but  with alertness brings hope and love to others.

No matter how ordinary our days-rising in the morning, preparing ourselves for the day, having our meals, working, interacting with others-all represent opportunities for greater awareness and alertness to make our experience of daily living alive and sanctified, an expression of feeling the divine in our lives.

As the Psalmist said: “Teach us to number our days so that we nay attain a heart of wisdom.” 

May we al be blessed in the New Year with hearts filled with the wisdom of the divine, the wisdom of being fully alive. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Grateful for the challenge of Yom Kippur-

Fasting or Responding-

“אך בעשור לחדש השביעי יום הכפורים הוא......ועניתם את נפשותיכם”
“Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month, is the Day of shall practise self-denial (you shall fast)”  (Leviticus 23:27)

I don’t like to fast. I would think that few do. I get grouchy and feel agitated in the course of the day , and rather than focusing on prayer I confess that the grumbling in my belly occupies too much of my attention. I wonder why the Torah legislated fasting as a means of atonement? There are of course not a few interpretations.To fast is to deprive yourself as punishment for your sins; you are detached from bodily needs and emerge more connected to your spiritual dimension as a human being;you can more fully devote yourself to prayer without the distractions of having to prepare food and engage in its consumption.
While I do fast and will continue to do so-it’s an integral part of Jewish tradition and practice-I continue to explore for newer meanings associated with the Hebrew root word  for self-denial- “ענה.”

The meaning of this word can also be -”to answer, to respond.”
While grammatically the Hebrew verse is not constructed to be translated as “ you shall respond in  or with your beings, souls,” I take the Midrashic liberty which is widely used in the Hassidic tradition to discover suggestions of other meanings, in spite of incorrect grammatical considerations.

Thus, “ ועניתם את נפשותיכם” could be translated as  “You shall respond with your being and soul.”

Yom Kippur is a challenge, a question, an invitation.In the Garden of Eden God asked Adam -”איכה”-”Where are you?” Yom Kippur is a moment of being asked by the Divine-where are we? What is the nature of our spiritual and moral lives? Are we living up to the full integrity of who we are and could be?
It is no accident that the prophetic voice recited on Yom Kippur asks the following rhetorical question?
“Is such a fast I desire? (‘Because you fast in strife and contention,and you strike with a wicked fist!’).....No! this is the fast I desire-to unlock the fetters of let the oppressed go is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched into your home; when you see the naked to clothe him, and not ignore your own kin.”( Isaiah 58: 4-7)

The prophet does not eliminate the practice of fasting; he transcends it to a realm that highlights the spiritual challenge not only of Yom Kippur but of every day of our lives.
How responsive are we to the pain and needs of others? How open are we to the beauty and fullness of the world that summons our thanks and gratitude? How willing are we to not only engage in ritual but to translate feeling and intention into deed and response to change the world in some small way?

On Yom Kippur we are called upon by Divine wisdom to respond-to rise to levels of the angelic so that “your light will burst forth like the dawn and your healing will will spring up instantly.”(Isaiah 57 :8)

Imagine the following: Each Yom Kippur, the Jewish people, all who fast, contribute the cost of their daily meals to the hungry of the world. Assuming there are approximately 10 million Jews who fast out of a total population of 14 and 1/2 million world population of Jews and that the cost of 3 meals a day is equivalent to $50.00, conceivably the Jewish people as an act of moral response and the sanctification of the Divine Name,  could contribute to the the poor and wretched of this planet a sum of $500 million -1/2 a billion dollars!!  Imagine the impact upon the hungry, the Jewish people and the world at large.

Grateful for  the capacity to transcend the legal and reach the realm of  the indeterminate  goodness and justice

“ Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you;
Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord....”(Deut.6:17-18)
“ועשית  הישר והטוב בעיני ה”  (דברים ו,יח)

These verses were read in the synagogue on Saturday, August 5, Shabbat Nachamu.
It may be asked: Why are these words added? After all, the reader has been instructed by the previous passage and indeed by many other passages ,of God’s requirement of goodness and fairness as contained in the mitzvot-the ordinances enjoined by the Divine? Is not observance of the mitzvot not sufficient?
A plausible answer is that this is a summary statement that defines the commandments as just and right,and thus is not superfluous. 

Upon closer exploration both of the verses in “V’Etchanan,” last week”s portion, and the opening verse of the parshah known as “Eikev,” this weeks segment,  the addition of these five Hebrew words provides a significant insight into the desired practise and fulfillment of Jewish spiritual behavior. 

With the opening words of this week’s Torah portion,”Eikev,” we encounter a word-”eikev” whose definition carries a mutidimentional meaning . “And if -‘eikev’-you obey these rules...the Lord will  favor and bless you.” (Deut.7:12-13)
The word ‘eikev’ is correctly translated as ‘in the heels of-the word means heel!’ (Consider Jacob’s name,Ya’akov, derived from the fact that he held on to his twin brother’s heel to prevent him from emerging from the womb first and gain the special status of first born-Genesis 25:26)
The Torah established the principle of reward for good behavior, and punishment for behavior that is unacceptable.This asserion emphasizes the individual’s 
unique identity as a responsible and free-choosing human being whose humanity, some would say, divinity, rests in this dimension of freedom and responsibility.

What’s curious about the word ‘eikev,’ however, is that it contains a very different definition as well,namely, ‘crooked,’ ‘devious,’ ‘deceptive,’ ‘ insincere.’
( see Genesis 27:36, where Esau, having been deceived by his brother and cheated out of his birthright  cries out in pain that his brother has supplanted him twice to wrest the birthright from him!)
How does the notion of crookedness or insincerity fit into our statement of ‘in the heels of ‘ or ‘as a consequence of’ our obedience or disobedience, we will  be either blessed or cursed!

At this point the reference to doing what is ‘fair and just in God’s sight’ is critical for a fuller understanding of Judaism’s  standard of moral behavior. This phrase is inexact, unlike legal prescriptions that are usually concrete and objectively understandable. After all,what does it mean exactly to be fair and right in God’s eyes?

I would like to suggest that what is signaled  in the use of ‘eikev’and the additional words referring to just and good behavior is the risk of doing things crookedly, in spite of devoted loyalty to the Law, without the ability to relate to  life with fairness and goodness . It is not difficult to imagine the observance of the mitzvah as disconnected from its intentioality, a rote like and mechanical relationship  rooted in the need to perform the deed out of fear or the need for some structure which provides security in one’s psychological life. Thus these few extra words emphasizing doing the fair and the good in God’s sight suggests the need to examine one’s heart and feelings ,to invest not only logical thought to the intricacies of the Law, but to explore the stirrings of the heart and soul with an eye that is focussed inwards.The Torah’s insistence on the inner world, the world of feeling, intention,sincerity and honesty,imagination and poetry, conscience, our sense of humanity, all of which is beyond tangible description is fundamental to the achievement of the more complete  moral and compassionate life.

By making us of the term ‘eikev,’ the Author indirectly touches on the ‘unconscious’ and elicits an association to the more primitive part of our inner life,one that is based on reward and punishment, ‘the crooked,’rather than on the recognition of doing the fair and good in the eyes of God,  acting because something is intrinsicaaly right and good. Eikev declares that we are blessed with the capacity to go beyond the observable and measurable, the legal, and touch the divinity in our souls through the posture of fairness, rightness and love.Let us not ignore this gift.

Grateful for the way of Divine Wisdom

Every now and then a word of Scripture leaps out at you and somehow captures a total way of thinking.Such a word is found in the Torah reading of this past week -Deuteronomy 12:8 and 13:19. 
‘לא תעשון ככל אשר אנחנו עושים פה היום איש כל הישר בעיניו ‘
You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases( what he considers right)

 כי תשמע בקול ה’ אלהיך לשמור  את כל מצוותיו אשר אנכי מצוך היום לעשות הישר בעיני ה’ אלהיך
For you will be heeding the Lord your God, obeying all His commandments that I enjoin them upon you this day, doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.

The word that is pivotal to this gratefulness word of Torah is “ישר” -”straight”-”right”-”fair.”

The Torah makes use of this word in two opposing and conflicting moral situations and postures.In the first, Deuteronomy 12:8, it highlights the inclination of the individual to do as he/she pleases, what she or he considers right and proper according to the standards that are meaningful only to himself/herself. One’s beliefs, actions and words are entirely individualistic, the sole arbiter of the moral stance is oneself.This is regarded by the Torah as problematic, dangerous and a violation of the principles of the Divine that should govern our lives.

Doing what is “ישר” in God’s sight is the desirable and divine obligation associated with one’s spiritual fulfillment and completion. Deuteronomy 13:19 unequivocally asserts this rightness as the ultimate standard for human activity and interaction.

Today we find ourselves enmeshed in a world dictated by leaders doing what is right in their own eyes,without any awareness of the divine wisdom that should influence and guide human behavior. Power, political expediency,financial profit, jingoism, psychological self-aggrandizement and excessive narcissism define the rightness of words, actions and policies. It is my sight that counts; egotism reigns supreme! Divine wisdom , that which is right in the sight of God, that which demands equality of opportunity, fairness and justice for all, a sense of compassion for the disadvantaged and vulnerable segments of our country and humanity everywhere, goodness and kindness toward all sentient beings, seeing the entire human community as children of God,  has taken a back seat or secondary role, if not totally vanished from the sight of American political leadership.

Religion’s demand is the perspective of God- Unity, wholeness, love; man’s view is what is right in ‘my sight’-narrow, fragmented, adversarial.

How dramatically relevant and imperative is the Torah’s message today, as growing numbers of citizens anticipate chaos and uncertainty for lack of a moral compass that can guide this nation and the world through the difficult times facing our fragile planet in the precarious future ahead.

Deuteronomy’s ancient insights inspire us today; may they find their way into the hearts and minds of our leadership and those who are more apt to follow their own misguided sense of what is right only in their own eyes.The time is ripe for a serious consideration of the perspective and wisdom of the divine source of all things.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Shavuot and my late brother Lawrence

Shavuot celebrates revelation, a moment when the hidden becomes disclosed. Sadly, revelation is a painful process. Often, the darkness of death is necessary for the light to be revealed.
My brother's passing,on January 11, 2017, shone a ray of light into his soul and was experienced as a time of revelation of a life that was taken for granted by so many.
What was revealed was that unique quality of heart and soul that is the focus of our attention on this festival as we read the Book of Ruth. Our sages tell us: The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot to teach us the reward for "Chessed"-compassion, loving-kindness, acceptance and tolerance, goodness and decency, a genuine respect for others. This quality transcends gender; my brother Lawrence live his life in the shadow of Ruth's goodness,with the simplicity and depth of one who loves for its own sake.
I share with you a meditation on the Kaddish in his memory.

Kaddish: Judaism’s Prayer for the Soul
A Personal Meditation                                                                        

 “Kaddish is not so much the praise of God as a prayer for the praise of God” (Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 28)

In memory of my beloved brother,
Lawrence Howard ( Oct. 11,1936 -Jan.12, 2017)
חנא ליב בן יוסף הכהן ורחל
of blessed memory.


As a rabbi, the Kaddish has figured prominently in my work. At every worship service, mourners and those commemorating the yahrzeit–anniversary of death–of loved ones would rise and recite its words.
Each funeral and unveiling ritual concluded with Kaddish’s praises rising to the open skies above rows of lonely tombstones.

For a number of years, engaged as I was in exploring the place of gratitude in the spiritual life, I was fascinated by the simplicity of this “prayer” and puzzled by its ostensible contradiction of reciting praise at the time of death. I was on the verge of beginning to record in writing my thoughts and 
ideas on this subject when my brother unexpectedly died. Instead of approaching my investigations through the academic routes of theology and philosophy, I found myself unexplainably caught up in words of personal poetry, responding out of the cold harshness of death from the heart. What emerged was the following meditation.

To introduce this personal response I’ve provided a brief overview of the place of Kaddish in Jewish thinking so as to orient the reader to some of the liturgy referenced in the poetry. I am deeply grateful for the inspired insights of those to whom I refer in the course of this barest of sketches.

This meditation was a source of comfort to me and helped me gain a greater understanding of the human condition. I can only hope that the reader too gains solace and a glimpse of clarity in this time of grief and confusion.

Finally, my brother Lawrence was the sweetest of men; I miss him and pray  that this meditation reach him somehow and fill him with the pride, joy, and love that we shared while he lived.


With the passing of the nearest of kin, the Kaddish is recited in the synagogue, in the company of a minyan, a quorum of 10 adult Jews, at each of the three daily prayer services, shacharit (the morning service), minchah (the afternoon service), and maariv (the evening service). Its duration of recitation is determined by the nature of one’s relationship to the deceased; the child’s commitment for the parent is eleven months minus one day, while for a spouse, sibling, or child, the period of Kaddish recital is thirty days.

Kaddish is integral to the worship service as a prayer that separates the various components of the service and is chanted by the prayer leader. Its popularity is associated with the experience of mourning, bereavement, and memory. Virtually anyone who sustains a loss of a loved one, at some time or another, recites the Kaddish.

The reasons for its hold on the Jewish imagination are many. For some, reciting Kaddish is prompted by a sense of commitment to a pattern of traditional Jewish living. Many others, however, who do not share this type of involvement still feel the need and desire to recite this special prayer. It can represent a way to pay honor to the deceased loved one; it is viewed as something that the deceased would have wished for; perhaps it functions as a means of absolving one’s sense of guilt, an emotion often emerging after death. Myriad reasons may be felt in the privacy of a loved one’s mind and heart.

Curiously, while reserved for times of death, the prayer itself makes not the slightest reference to death or anything associated with this final event of life. Yet, its words are central to the death experience. Why? How is this prayer to be understood? What religious and spiritual purpose does it serve? 

First, it was, and continues to be, seen by many as a powerful instrument by means of which the living can influence the final journey of the deceased’s soul: “The Kaddish is a handclasp between the generations, one that connects two lifetimes...the son’s recitation of kaddish represents a continuation of (the life of the deceased, its ideals, and aspirations) the complicated calculus of the spirit, the reverse is possible! The deeds of the child can redeem the life of the parent, even after the parent’s death” (Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p. 158).

The fundamental and most frequently recorded incident regarding Kaddish is the mystical vision of the great sage Rabbi Akiba. He had a vision of a well-known sinner who had died and was condemned to intolerable punishment. The sinner informed the rabbi in the vision that only if his surviving son would recite Kaddish would he be redeemed. The rabbi proceeded to teach the youngster these prayers. When the youngster recited the Kaddish, he saved his father from perdition (ibid., pp. 160-61).

Furthermore, the Kaddish is not merely based on kinship; “It is based on the son’s righteousness...this appeal is not made in the name of blood, it is made in the name of character...the mourner says: have pity on the soul of this man because he raised a man who stands before you and submits to your authority” (Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 386). “The Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead; it is an achievement of the dead” (ibid., p. 421).

In contrast to this concept of redeeming the deceased, the mystical and Hassidic traditions see Kaddish as a means of comfort and restoration for God Himself. The Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but the Kaddish is a prayer for God: “The Kaddish is a reckoning of God’s loss” (for the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel) (ibid, p. 426).

This concept is further reinforced in the Talmud which tells us, “I heard a divine voice cooing sadly and muttering, ‘Woe is Me that I destroyed my Temple and burned my Sanctuary and exiled my children among the peoples of the world’...the Divine Voice speaks this way three times a day, when Jews come to the houses of worship...and exclaim: ‘May His Name be blessed always and forever’ (in response to the beginning of the Kaddish), God nods His head sadly and says: ‘Happy is the king whose children extol him in his own house! But woe to the father who banished his children and woe to the children who have been banished from their father’s table’” (T.B. Berachot 3:1).

Whatever the understanding of Kaddish’s power over the soul of the deceased and the nature of the Divine, it is unquestionably influential on the soul of the reciter who is still alive.

Saying the Kaddish after something as tragic and sometimes sudden as death speaks volumes about the character and strength of the one reciting the Kaddish; it is an act of defying death and transcending the anguish with the hope and belief in the ultimate realization of God's kingdom on this earth: “Kaddish is not only a statement about the greatness of God but about the greatness of man” (J.B. Soloveichik, Out of the Whirlwind, p. xix).

It is from this perspective that I offer the poetic meditation below. The thrust of the Kaddish’s words is to praise. As the Kaddish is recited we declare God’s praise in virtually every synonym of praise that exists in the Hebrew/Aramaic language. Essentially, Kaddish is composed of stanzas of gratitude.

Kaddish is repetitive, mantra-like, its cadences and rhythms soothe us and offer us solace; its sounds still our frantic fears, the music of its syllables and words soften the harshness of our grief. Repetition’s familiar cadences transforms us. As we recite, even without understanding, we find refuge from the onslaughts of confusion, loss, anger, guilt, and feelings of being abandoned and alone. Its mantric echoes anchor our existence in the midst of turbulent thoughts and emotions. Praising in spite of ourselves somehow eases pain, and slowly opens paths of peace, even of pleasantness: “Souls flutter, wings open, and the heart begins a flight toward healing, for the living and for the dead” (Hyla Shifra Bolsta, The Illuminated Kaddish, p. 21). Kaddish allows us to imbue the atmosphere with vibrations of expansiveness and holiness.

Kaddish (transliteration and translation)

Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba (Cong: Amein)
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Cong: Amen)

b'al'ma di v'ra khir’utei.
in the world that He created as He willed.

v'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,

uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,

ba'agala uviz'man kariv v’im'ru.
swiftly and soon. 

Now say (Mourners and Congregation): 
Amein. Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam ul'al'mei al'maya.
(Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)

Yit'barakh v'yish'tabach v'yit'pa'ar v'yit'romam v’yit'nasei,
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,

v'yit'hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit'halal sh'mei d'kud'sha
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One

Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
b'rikh hu.
blessed is He.

L'eila min kol bir'khata v'shirata
Beyond any blessing and song,

toosh'b'chatah v'nechematah, da'ameeran b'al'mah,

praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. 

Now say (Mourners and Congregation): 

Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya
May there be abundant peace from Heaven

v'chayim aleinu v'al kol yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
and life upon us and upon all Israel. 

Now say (Mourners and Congregation):

Oseh shalom bim'romav hu ya'aseh shalom
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,

aleinu v'al kol Yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
upon us and upon all Israel. 

Now say (Mourners and Congregation):


Standing on silent soil
A Canadian wind whipping into faces 
encrusted by frozen tears

belly laughs blown away 
by gusts of time’s passage
words of law, of love, of innocent faith
now muzzled by frost - flaked  mud

blankets of snow
an igloo, a haven from the raw cold
of soggy earth, 
“I lift up my eyes...
from whence cometh my help?”
My help cometh from words ,
ancient and Aramaic,
that melt the world’s vast, cold nothingness
I shiver at the thought of my brother
caged in the coffin so cold-

no woolen blanket or furry coat,
no warmth of  hugging body, 
no loving massage of lifeless limbs

futility of futilities!

only the faint, reluctant  murmuring of 
words streaming into steamy puffs of lung- filtered breath

 winding their way through particles of clay and polished wood 
into the once heaving body of my big brother!

These words - somethingness-Magnified and Sanctified-
will tuck him in for the night of all eternity.

“ Exalted.”

Oh God ! You have shrunk
like a  baby’s blanket 
 meant to be laundered by mother’s loving  hands, 
flung instead 
into the swirling and crushing waters
of life’s grinding gears,
now tattered like a mourner’s 
shirt, the biting wind lashing at 
 my heart, bare , still  beating,
 not like his, buried below, pounding no more.

You have receded into the  waning rays
of a sun setting to close the week
and a life-

I clutch on to Your fading Presence
but Your Mighty outstretched  Hand 
has lost its grip
and I slide into the abyss of Your
growing smallness

Don’t go! I beg, don’t turn Your back,
the knots of Your Tefilin unraveling,
dragging on the floor of forgetfulness

How can I hold on? 
You dare not abandon me, especially now?

Yitgadal-I shout out Your greatness,
My cry will cross empty spaces of death 
and bring you back,
once again we will breathe the warmth and fulness of life

Yitgadal-with each piercing sound of praise 
You inch Your way back to us
filling the cold void in our hearts 
with intimations of love and kindness,
of hope and meaning,
of a reason to live.

Yitgadal V’yitkadash.

I am afraid now, death fills me with dread,
Does Your Greatness grind  existence into dust,
 too tiny 
to merit Your concern?

Yitgadal-  Don’t let Your greatness go to Your head! 
Is it irreverrence? Insolence? Blasphemy deserving 
of “Old Testament “ death?
Remember Your heart, what
My ancestors said:
 “wherever one encounters Your Greatness,
there he touches Your humility!”
I now know your greatness -You too,
need my words, need my praise

Yitgadal-my greatness is back too

We are friends once again,
We are back, together !


Remove your gloves,
hands reddened by the icy air and
raw water
spilling  from the cup of overflowing, washing away 
traces of ‘ tumah,’ of the defilement of death.
Holiness has taken refuge elsewhere,
escaping the heavy silence of rows of lifeless stones
home is where the heart is, where 
holiness is,  sacredness of food, of family ,of friends,
As burning liquid stings my throat,
 washing  up against my numbness,
holiness  seeps back  into frozen pores.

shiva- people, voices, wailing , laughter, words words words
heard no more from the sweet mouth of my brother
now fill the mind with holiness, God is back,
and we  slowly see the blurry outline
of sparks flickering
 amid the husks of decay and decomposition. 

shmay rabbah:
“ His great Name.”

a Name of infinite names

Blessed                                Numinous
Compassionate                    One
Eternal                                 Patient
Forgiving                              Queen
Great                                    Redeemer
Holy of holies                       Shepherd
Ineffable                               Transcendent
Just                                       Ultimate
King                                      Venerable
Loving                                   Wondrous
Majestic                                 X-Factor


Balma divrah kireutei :
“In the world created by Divine desire.”

Life is good! the words proclaim,
this world, beautiful!  
Can God be mistaken, deliberately deceptive? 
‘and God saw that it was good!’ 
Would He go back on His word?

You wished it and it was so,
This world is Yours,
You dare not ascend into the firmament of other worlds
leaving us behind?

Can  a king be king without subjects?
A shepherd without sheep?
a teacher with no students?
a parent without children? 
a lover with no beloved??

We will show you how to be loyal-
dragging weary bodies to shul,
early  morning behind eyelids still stuck in slumber,
parched throats squeeze out Your Praise


and when we lie down,
to vacate the void in darkness
 we still proclaim-yitgadal-
this is Your world,
we inhabit it
Your tenants Thank You!

and when we rise up, 
roused by the soul’s return!

V’yamleech malchootei:
May God’s Sovereignty be restored.”

we had a dream, a dream we shared with You
that he live a few more years
to cuddle grandchildren in a warm Sunday morning bed
to rest palms on pure, soap- fragranced hair
and utter blessings,
to chant each morning Your praises without 
calculation, with the clarity of a guiless heart

into this blankness our yearning yawns into

Bagalah u’vizman kariv:
 “ Speedily, soon- PDQ.”

we want You now
Your absence, his, unbearable
layers of patient waiting peeling away
left with no more flesh
only cracked bones of 
the valley of death

with love, there is patience,
with life, endurance of pain
can these bones live?
will I hear his voice 
excitedly rebound off satellite towers
into my heart with the latest news
of life’s ordinary pleasures and gifts?

reality reminds me; there is no resurrection
so let him rest in peace
and expect nothing

yet I hope, I pray, I praise, I demand

‘bagalah’ -make a miracle quickly,
time is running out
the chase leaves me breathless
If not soon, patience will curl its way
into thin air , like the smoke 
of country hearths.

‘bizman kariv’

hold on, Messiah’s steps 
are just around the corner
someday , soon-we’ll be together.

Yehay shmay raba mevorach: 
“ May His  Great Name be Blessed.”

The  congregation responds, 
energy, eternal- community continues
God’s Name shedding light 
on darkness of absence ,
like a Shiva candle whose flame 
sinks into melting wax
casting a flicker when all lights are out 

Has God’s blessing been suspended?
Interrupted in some way?
Is God’s blessing  stoppable? 
Can the world be sustained without 
the energy and blessing from on High?
All bounty and blessing originate with You
flowing  into our lives and the  universe 
as rivers coursing along winding paths of 
mountains and valleys thirsting for 
waters of life and growth. 
unrestrained, uninhibited, unconditional currents
of life-
we search after words and deeds 
that will ease and magnify the Divine flow of life’s energy and 

we remove roadblocks,
the hurdles of hardened hearts,
of souls steeped in hurt and sorrow,
if only the eye of a needle may
allow the trickle of tenderness
to leap from the breast of the Lover
across the hills of heaven
and skip into the hearts of those beloved
hiding behind the lattices of  loneliness
and longing!

l’olam u’lolmay almayah:
Forever, as long as worlds endure.”

blessing beckons always and everywhere
time and space sparkle with God’s radiance, light
spillimg over the confines of God’s self enclosure
and we below acknowledge, absorbing
myriad flickerings 
of illumination, thus  staying alive
If God is not everywhere, He is nowhere
the whole world is filled with His glory!
Love in a vacuum is not love
love seeks a vessel,
butterfly wings
buzzing bee
broken heart
baby’s first breath


Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnaseh v’yithadar v’yitaleh v’yithalal :
Be blessed, be praised, be embellished, be exalted, be elevated, be splendid, be above -all, be acclaimed. “

octet of adulation,
eight spheres spiraling through the Unity of the All
extraordinary, bursting beyond the ordinary,
span of seven
covenant’s cry of belonging, tiny body bundled in mother’s softness.
body bare, mohel’s cold blade, howling cutting through hovering  clouds of 
Holy Presence.

eight fold exaltation
eighth day of Assembly
we have reached our limit
 depleted of all praise
we assemble, mere traces of Te Deum

as long as we are human
we can still whisper hallelujah

shemei d’kudesha:
“ A Name of utter holiness.”

He hides, intimated only by a Name
by a symbol of letters,
a representation not of images 
but of pictureless codes
to read, recite, repeat, intone and cantillate
to occupy a place of incomparability.

a name that death has tried to vilify-
a name  revered and adored, 
able  to withstand all attempts at desecration and dismissal
and we add the scratchings of our own signatures
to Your Name,
outer walls to halt the slightest breach
of Your sacred integrity,
of Your Holy of Holies.

Brich Hu:
“ Be blessed.”

Echoes of blessing suffice at times
especially in the chorus
of many gathered to praise.

There is more, empty spaces, lifeless
awaiting the blessing of blessing, the breath 
of ‘Magnify and Sanctify’
back to the beginning
opening words already forgotten
reclaim them to fill
the measure of God’s fullness

and now there were ten, we add the beginning
to create a new beginning, genesis all over again
the tools of construction are ten in number,
even God needed ten pronouncements to complete His work-
yet unfinished
the soul yearns for its nurturance
and Sinai’s dosage of healing medicine administered
as ten-commandments, pronouncements,
words, a Decalogue.

The soul seeks higher heights!
commandments  can curtail, constrict
how can we soar into vast stretches of mystery
and wonder, to touch the hem of God’s resplendent robes?

L’aylah-higher to ten emanations
sefirot of of the finest spirit,
planets of possibility,

so we laud tenfold
breaking new paths
to Shechina’s Presence

l’ayla min kol birchata v’shirata tushbechata v’nechematah:
“ Beyond all blessing, song, praise and consolation uttered by  the human tongue.”

beyond all spheres of human blessing
there is a place, perhaps it is placeless
beyond description or conception
Is that the Ein Sof?

 God out of reach, out of earshot,
 blessings and praises swallowed up 
 in stretches of distant emptiness 
tips of fingers straining to touch faint footsteps
met instead with cold nothingness, tingling in space

beyond consolation-God too, a mourner

even God’s desire for comfort transcends all tears and words,
all cries and human compassion

He too, Alone above, as we await in vain the sigh of solace, 
all alone below.

We imagine the unimaginable, a God as distant as 
a twinkling star
to wish upon, knowing all wishes vanish as wisps of smoke
into the reaches of earth’s skies.

Why praise, why bless, why sing, why boadcast the tremors of a broken heart? 

Futility of Futilities!  without beginning, without end, timeless blackness,
absolute oneness, all mystery, the Ein Sof stifles all sound, all breath, 
wimper, scream, whisper.

Is it not cruel  to command acclamation in every conceivable synonymn, until words, language and human utterance mock us in their impotence?

God needs not praise-do we need to praise?

Should we not halt now, simply aware of God’s beyondness and leave it at that?
No need to go on-we slump into defeated silence.

V’imru Amen:
 “All say Amen.”

we accept the truth of life, of Kaddish’s perspective
toward praising as survival,
“ hearts through shadow and mist say good-bye, let go the strings, and say Amen.”
yet praise falls short
l’ayla-beyond, over the edge

I’ve  been stopped in my tracks
 by Kaddish’s unforgiving,
inescapable  truth 
how to  give voice to words that lie buried below, 
submerged , companions  of utter quiet.
Still, I persist in praising, though consonants  and vowels
tumble  over the edge of nowhere, an empty abyss? 
we  have reached the end of the line.
 if not praise, then what?
we shiver in the cold uncertainty of the next moment,
lips frozen by futility.

Let there be.
Beyond all praise 
There is only being
the ‘isness’ of life 
peaceful and whole-shalom
the current, energy and soul
of all there is.

Sh’lama raba min shemaya
V’Hayim  Alaynu v’al kol Yisrael:
“ May abundant  heavenly peace, wholeness and life suffuse our lives.”

At the crossroads,
no signs, no paths, no maps, no guide
Too pooped to praise, heart hallelujah hollow,
Mind meandering in space,
Abandoned to mere imagination,
a reverie of peace.

Oseh shalom bimromav
hu yaaseh shalom,
alaynu v’al kol Yisrael(v’chol yoshvei tevel)
v’eemroo Amen:

“ May the One whose uppermost realms 
are fashioned with peace,
bestow peace below-a gift to Israel and 
the entire human community.
Amen. “

Are not the heavens beyond hearing
hushed but for angelic sounds,
at night, sounds of praise
in the morning, silence,
a space for those below to praise .
night has come, the light of life
dimming over the horizon
until its final gasping rays 
retire for eternity.
Is shalom soundless?
then we have death!
Bring down the shalom of 
“pamalya shel maalah”-the family of angels
who know no rivalry, no contradiction, no weariness
only song, praise and love.
Make it possible, we pray,
so that hearts heal with words of the kaddish, 
words of praise and gratitude, no matter what!
and with praise, the rays of each day’s dawn
will unveil the promise of tomorrow.


1.Bolsta, Hyla Shifra,The Illuminated Kaddish, Ktav Publishing House, 2012.

2.Lamm, Maurice,The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,Jonathan David Publishers, 1969.

3.Soloveitchik, J.B.,Out of the Whirlwind, Ktav Publishing House, 2003.

4.Wieseltier, Leon, Kaddish, Vintage, 2000.

Personal Thoughts: