Thursday, October 31, 2013

Parashat Toldot and Praying for Others

The Talmud says that if you pray for someone else who has the same problem as you, your own needs too will be answered. So if you need a job and so does your friend Reuven, you should pray that Reuven will find one. Same holds if you need a spouse or success or contentment and so does someone else you know. Pray for them. The art of prayer is bound up in reaching out toward others.

The Slonimer Rebbe, author of the Netivot Shalom, writes that to pray just for your own needs is to act like a dog, barking for food. He cites a famous rabbi who used to say the phrase, VeAhavta Le’Re’akha Kamokha, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” just before beginning the Amidah prayer, in order to get into the proper prayer mindset. Prayer is a stepping out of oneself, a stepping out toward God, but also a stepping out of oneself toward others.

This week’s parsha begins with such a prayer for another. “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.” That’s it? It was that simple? Avraham and Sarah went through a long drawn out process, including the conception of a child through another woman, Hagar. What’s the difference here? Avraham never prayed for Sarah. He wanted a child, and by all accounts, Ishmael was good enough for him. Yitzhak, though, Yitzhak’s primary motive in praying was to pray for his wife -- Lenokhan Ishto¸ translated by JPs as “on behalf of his wife,” literally, “in the presence of his wife.” Rivkah was present for Yitzhak; she was on his mind, and his prayer was for her. Not just for a child, but for this wife to have a child.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the communal nature of prayer lately as I attend communal services more regularly in order to say kaddish. Hearing the words of prayer uttered by others around me, I wonder to myself: What is that one worried about? What is that one praying for today? I find this mental act to be a tremendous relief from my own worries and anxieties. For a moment I can step out of myself. And then, when the kaddish rolls around, my own private mourning becomes a communal mourning, my own sorrow is bound up with all the sorrows experienced by each person in the room. Suddenly the world seems to be filled with people who have lost a loved one, and all of their grief is somehow part of mine, and mine part of theirs.

Yitzhak’s reward for praying for another was not just that his prayer was answered. It was also great intimacy with God. The Torah uses the same root for his prayer and for God’s response,atar, and the midrash explains that Yitzhak was digging a tunnel on one side, and God was digging one on the other side to meet him. Stepping out toward others is at the same time stepping out toward God and feeling how God is stepping out toward us.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kaddish Musings

Kaddish feels like a flight upward. The words have wings, lifting us with their soft repetitive mesmerizing sound, yitgadal vitkadash. Yitpa’ar vitromam vitnase. May He be exalted and lifted up and raised up. Le’eyla min kol birkhata . . . Higher than all blessings and praises, . . . Higher and higher we go. Each word is a step in our trip upwards.

Like the soul that we are praying for, helping to make its journey upward, we, too, take a little flight each time. We, as mourners of the dead, have some special connection to this journey upward of the soul.

And once we are up there, we bring down for those around us gifts from that space – the gift of shalom or shlama, peace, and somewhat ironically, the gift of hayim, life, the gift of knowing that life – more precious now that we see how easily it can disappear -- comes from above, from this place we have flown to, this space between worlds.

No wonder kaddish is a prayer that happens at the interstices of our formal prayers. It is a prayer said by those, the living mourning for the dead, who inhabit a place between worlds.

And, as if to keep us firmly rooted in this world, like ropes attached to a rock climber, we have the solid grounding of our fellow inhabitants of this earthly world constantly saying “amen” and “brikh hu,” anchoring us as we make our climb. This is a temporary journey of the mind, but we are still here, among the living, bringing down blessings from above aleynu ve’al kol yisrael, vimru amen.

Parashat Chaye Sarah: On Death and Hesed

Our parsha, Chaye Sarah, is enveloped by death. At its start is death, that of Sarah, and its conclusion is death, that of Avraham and of Ishmael. In life, we are surrounded by death. We will all die and we live our lives through the prism of that knowledge. We were not alive before our births, and we will cease to exist afterwards. The question is: What is left of significance in the middle, given this framing?

And the answer, according to this week’s parsha, is hesed, loving-kindness. This is the spark of eternity which grows out of this frame of death. Rebecca is chosen as Isaac’s wife because of her acts of hesed, of generosity and compassion and love for a stranger as she draws water for Avraham’s servant and for his camels. She is a giver, attentive to the needs of those around her. Giving generously, it turns out, is the abiding legacy of Avraham, our first patriarch, the one who ran after guests and fed them his finest meat. Generosity and kindness are what remains, what needs to be preserved in the shadow of death that threatens to engulf us.

Which makes sense, in a way. If you only live for yourself, and then you die, then you are truly gone when you are gone. But if you have somehow gotten beyond the confines of self through the care of others, then you are not bound by time or physical container, but have, like Avraham and Sarah, become part of something eternal.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Parashat Vayera and Presence: Human and Divine

This post is dedicated to the memory of my father, Moshe Shmuel ben Shimon Tuvia, may his memory be a blessing, and to the many people who have been helping us through this time.

What does it mean “to walk in God’s ways,” to be like God, to act like a true tzelem elokim, “image of God” on earth? It means to be present to those who suffer as God Himself is present.

God appears to Avraham, in the beginning of this week’s parsha, just a few days after the painful procedure of his brit milah, circumcision. Rashi brings down the rabbinic tradition that God’s purpose in this visit was bikur holim, visiting the sick.

Similarly, in next week’s parsha, right after Avraham’s death, the Torah says that “God blessed Yitzhak his son (Gen 25:11).” Here, too, Rashi brings the rabbinic tradition that God was performing the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourners.

God is our model. Neither of these acts involves fixing anything. Both visiting the sick and comforting the mourners are mitzvot of presence; one simply comes to be with a person in his trouble so that he knows that he is not alone. We say in the daily tefillah (prayers) that God is rofe leshevurei lev, that He heals the broken-hearted. We, too, provide healing, simply by our ability to be present.

Avraham learned this ability to be present from God and reflected it back to God and to others (notably, his son) in the simple phrase: Hineni, Here I am. That’s all we need to say sometimes: I am here, here with you, present and open to who you are, to what you have to say and to what you are experiencing.

This past week, we were sitting shiva for my father, and we felt the power of such presence in all those many who came to be with us. It’s funny that people recite the phrase, Hamakom yenahem etkhem, that the Holy One should console us, when it is their very human visit, their presence in our sorrow, that offers us some comfort.

Maybe that’s what it means. We are God’s instruments on earth. We help each other to feel God’s presence in our sorrow, by being present ourselves. During shivah, someone mentioned that a youngster she was teaching, when asked to draw a picture of God and himself, drew a big hand with a circle in the middle for God. Where are you, she asked him? I am the hand, God’s hand in the world.

We have lost one hand in this world. When I spoke at my father’s funeral, one of the things I spoke about was his special ability to be present to those he was with. He had deep eyes and a soul that understood and connected. I have since been hearing from others – cousins and friends and students – who felt similarly that when they were with him, he really listened and cared, was totally focused on them. May we continue his work in this world; may we be the tools of Presence for those around us.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Parashat Noah and the Shma: On Love and Unity

The people spoke one language and were like “one nation.” And that was trouble, somehow. That is the story of the Tower of Bavel, in the end of this week’s parsha, parashat Noah. What is wrong with unity?

Every day we say in the Shma that God is One. We affirm our faith in the ultimate unity of the divine and of all of creation. We are part of God’s One-ness in some way, and it often seems that the goal of religious practice is to dissolve the boundaries between self and other and between self and Other. So what was wrong with the Tower of Bavel?

The kind of unity they were engaged in was a unity of sameness. The kind that we strive for is a unity built out of love. Love does not require sameness. Indeed, it thrives out of difference, as the popular saying, “Opposites attract” indicates. Love celebrates difference, particularity; when we love someone, what we love is all those crazy (and sometimes even annoying) little quirks that make them unique. Love is the bridge across difference.

God didn’t want a world of automatons working together because they naturally had no differences, naturally agreed with each other. He wanted a world where people learned to work together and connect with each other across difference. And the most essential tool for that purpose is love.

That’s why Avraham, the star of next week’s parsha, is known for the attribute of hesed, loving-kindness. Olam Hesed Yibaneh. The world will be built out of hesed, out of loving-kindness, not out of the the bricks of a Tower built by sameness.

The Shma, too, makes this point clear. Before and after we say that God is one, that our goal is to feel the unity that exists in this universe, we speak of ahavaha, love. Before the Shma, we speak of God’s love for us in the paragraph beginning Ahavah Rabbah, “a great love have You loved us,” and afterwards, we speak of our love for God, ve’ahavta, “You should love God with all your might, . . .” The unity of the Shma is built out of a love that helps us bridge the enormous chasm between ourselves and heaven.

We are not the same, and the goal never was for us to be the same. Looking out the window this time of year, the leaves seem to speak the same truth. God’s unity is manifest in a thousand colors and our ability to step out of ourselves to love each one.