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.