Wednesday, September 19, 2012

For Yom Kippur: On the Power of Speech

“Keep your lips sealed like two grinding stones that cleave to each other” (Rabbi Hayim Vital, as quoted by Hillel Zeitlin in God in All Moments).

We say a lot of things that we wish we hadn’t -- hurtful words out of irritation or anger or an attempt at humor (or even, I’ve noticed in my children, out of boredom), gossipy words out of idle curiosity or a desire to connect to one person by speaking about another, untruthful exaggerated words out of a desire to impress, and interrupting words out of our greater need to be heard than to hear others. Sometimes the moment the words go out, we regret them, sometimes even while we are saying them. Hillel Zeitlin was wise to take this statement of Rabbi Hayim Vital’s as one of his personal hanhagot, his daily habitual practices – to keep his lips firmly sealed.

Yom Kippur is a time when we are particularly preoccupied with the power of the mouth to do wrong. We begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a prayer about vows sworn that have not been fulfilled. And in the list of Al Het’s, prominent among the sins enumerated are those done with one’s mouth; there are at least seven listed, many of which include the word peh, “mouth” or the equivalent -- sins of slander, scorn, and foolish speech. It seems that the mouth is a major center of wrongdoing.

It is also, thankfully, a major center of rightdoing; the mouth has power, in both directions. After all, it is through our mouths that our sins are forgiven on Yom Kippur. What do we do on these High Holidays other than use speech to beseech God -- to forgive us, to be merciful, to grant us life? We say a lot of words on these holidays, as testified by the need for two separate (thick!) prayer books! Shma Koleinu, we say, “hear our voices.”

Our need to beware of what our mouths say – to generally have our lips cleave to one another – comes from the Torah’s respect for the power of speech to do both good and bad in the world. Barukh She’Amar, goes the morning prayer – “Blessed is He who Spoke” VeHayah Ha’Olam, “And the world came to be.” Creation happened out of a series of speech acts – speech is a powerful tool -- and our daily acknowledgement of that creation is itself done through our own powerful speech act of prayer. We honor God’s use of speech through own proper use of it.

And so at this time of year, we practice keeping our mouths both open and shut, learning to respect the power of the mouth and its essential dignity and holiness. The daily Amidah prayer concludes with Elokay Netzor Leshoni Mera , “My Lord, keep my tongue from evil,” and it begins with: Hashem Sefatay Tiftah Ufi Yagid Tehilatekha, “God, open my lips so that my mouth can speak your praise.” May we know when to speak and when to remain silent.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rosh HaShanah Thoughts: On the Line Between Despair and Self-Reflection

Ivdu et Hashem B’Simchah. “Worship God with joy.” Even during this time period of serious reflection, worship God with joy, not sadness.

Repentance – a thoughtful process of self-assessment of one’s faults and shortcomings – can be depressing. I’m still mired in the same issues as last year. The situation is hopeless, one feels.

That isn’t the task – to feel hopeless. The Piaseczner Rav, in a work entitled Hovat HaTalmidim, “The Responsibility of the Students,” outlines some common human faults and ways of overcoming them. He pauses to explain the delicate balance of emotion involved in such self-improvement:

“Do not become saddened, young one of Israel, and do not let your heart drop inside you from the enormous responsibility, for sadness is itself a bad trait which destroys the mind and the heart, and even leads to laziness. “

Instead of sadness, the Piaseczner Rav proposes a kind of gentle motivating worry -- an awareness of one’s enormous potential and of one’s responsibility to fulfill that potential. He paints a picture that expresses the difference between sadness and this state of heightened concern. The person who is sad is like one who has lost his fortune and has no hope of ever retrieving it. He is despairing and depressed. Not so one who knows that there is treasure buried deep, deep under ground. He feels a gnawing urgency to begin the work and a constant worry about how to dig and reach the treasure, but the worry merely propels him to action; he remains essentially positive about his future.

Despair has no role in repentance. On the contrary, one needs to feel inspired and secure that there is indeed a treasure buried deep deep inside oneself and that it is just a matter of work to retrieve it.

Rosh HaShanah is a time of inspiration, not despair. The call of the shofar is not a cry of sadness, but a call to arousal and action, galvanizing the people like the ancient trumpet call to war; there is energy and optimism in this call.

You will be punished, said last week’s parsha, for “not worshipping God with joy,” tahat asher lo avadeta et Hashem Elokekha besimchah. Sadness and despair, as the Piaseczner Rav says, lead to non-action. What we are looking for this time of year is a joyful optimism that inspires us and gives us the energy to do the digging we need to do.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Some Thoughts for the Month of Elul: Taking the Initiative

This is a time of awakening from below. In Hasidic thought, there are two kinds of awakenings -- that from above, when God initiates and causes something to happen inside us or in the world, and that from below, when we humans take the initiative in the divine-human relationship. This period of 40 days between Rosh Hodesh Elul (the fist day of the month of Elul) until Yom Kippur (the 10th day of the month of Tishrei), a period of teshuvah, repentance, is a period of awakening from below, a time when it is we who attempt to awaken ourselves to the service of God and to awaken God Himself to be our partners.

That is why, says the Sefat Emet, the rabbis say that the word for this month, Elul, stands for Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li. “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me.” It is we who must start – must take the first step in feeling that “I am for my Beloved.”

Historically this time-period is understood as the time period in which the first national sin was repented for, the Golden Calf. This is the 40 day period of repentance at the end of which, on Yom Kippur, God sent Moshe down with the second set of Tablets, showing His complete forgiveness of the people. These second set of Tablets, says the Sefat Emet, thus represent the Torah as it is won by the people’s own spiritual work. The first set of Tablets came down purely as a gift from heaven. For this reason, they could not last. But the second set of Tablets were earned by the people’s sincerity and devotion, and so this is the Torah that remains with us to this day, the Torah that we earn through our hard work. No wonder, then, that it is at this time of year that we celebrate Simchat Torah, the joy of Torah; what we are celebrating is our ownership and participation in the Torah that we have brought down to earth.

Open miracles don’t happen anymore. God does not cause plagues to reign on our enemies (at least not in obvious ways) nor do we see Him revealed at the top of a mountain filled with thunder and lightning. Our experience of the divine, of revelation, our understanding of Torah, comes only through our own hard work. As the Sefat Emet often says, the more you put in, the more you get out. The more you believe, the more will be revealed, the more you work on yourself spiritually, the more you will be conscious of the divine in the world. Religious sensibility is a muscle like any other; the more you work out, the more fit you are.

What a good message for the beginning of the school year! Learning is not a gift that descends from above. It is hard won. And yet, it is also a gift; we should not forget the end of the verse – V’Dodi Li, “And my Beloved is for Me.” If we put in the energy, if we take the initiative, then God, too, will play His part; we will also receive – from above – more than we put in. As the ancient rabbis put it in God’s voice, “If you make an opening for Me as narrow as the eye of the needle, I shall make the opening wide enough for camps full of soldiers and siege engines to enter it (Pesikta deRav Kahana 5.6).