Thursday, September 29, 2016

For Rosh Hashanah: On a Return To Connection

A return to connectedness. That is why we work to repair our relationships with one another and with God. We are returning to connectedness. We are plugging back in above to the place from which we came. And we are reasserting our deep buried knowledge of our essential connection to others.

The midrash says that when God first created the human, the human was both male and female and then God split them apart. That is why we all have a basic loneliness and a yearning for connection. We unconsciously remember a time we were part of a larger whole.

And on Rosh Hashanah we return to this original connection, our original connection both to God and to each other.
The Sefat Emet says that on Rosh Hashanah we experience a slight taste of the world before creation, an undifferentiated world where all was God and all was therefore one without separation.

Notice the repeated emphasis in our Rosh Hashanah davening on unity – we celebrate God’s kingship by asserting that there will be a time when all creatures will join together as one unit (agudah ahat) in worship of God. On that day, God will be one and His name will be one. We are pointing back to pre-creation and forward to the end of times when we will circle back to this state of total unity.

Having a glimpse of such unity could help us live better. Many of the obstacles we face in spiritual growth, the impediments to balance and happiness and life satisfaction, are related to our extreme self-absorption and isolation. We view everything from the skewed perspective of “me,” as if we are each the star of the movie, and when we suffer it often involves our egos in some way or simply our soul’s lack of connection.

The tefillot of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all phrased in the plural and done in community to draw us back out of this mirage of separation back into the world of connectedness, to an experience of a life that is connected above, connected to those around us and also connected richly to those who came before us and to those who will come after us. We are embedded, essential members of an eternal chain. We are plugged in to the God who joins us all.
May it be a year of connectedness for all of us.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Pre-Selichot Thoughts on Patience

Melekh ne’elav, God is a king who bears insults. In his discussion of the 13 attributes of God, Moses Cordovero describes the situation in this way: God is continually providing for us, sustaining us at every moment through His flow of love and energy. And the remarkable thing is that this continues to happen even when we sin or stray from His course. He still sends down that flow of energy; He still sustains us and does not withhold anything despite the insult we have inflicted upon Him.

Two of the 13 middot (attributes) which we will begin to recite on Saturday night as part of the Selichot service, two of them deal with this notion of a long suffering injured king.

The first is Erekh Apayim. Literally, this term means “Long of the nostrils,” meaning that God takes a long time to anger. He takes slow, long breaths, as it were, instead of the quick ones we associate with anger. God is patient. He doesn’t rush into a tizzy because we have strayed, but takes His time, bears the insult and waits for the person to correct themselves.

Bearing the insult is part of the notion of another one of the middot, Nose Avon. Nose Avon means that God “forgives” sins, but literally the word nose means to carry or bear. He bears the burden of our thoughtlessness and greed and other sins the way the earth is bearing the burden of our overtaxation of its resources. We don’t immediately or perhaps ever feel the full weight of the effects of our wrongdoings. God bears those on His shoulders.

Why do we call out these 13 attributes of God so often? It is not only to remind ourselves of what God is like, but also to remind ourselves of how we should act, in imitation of God.

So if God is merciful and compassionate, we should be merciful and compassionate. And if God is long suffering and patient with our transgressions, then we, too, should be long suffering and patient with the wrongs done to us by others. If we are hurt by them, we are like God, the hurt king, and we should act like God in our response, not withholding our generosity but continuing to give and connect, and bearing the burden of the hurt upon ourselves patiently.

Our relationships with one another are full of goodness and joy, but they also always have some difficulties. We hurt each other and are, each in our way, difficult to be with. Part of what we learn from God is that being in relationship involves bearing that burden patiently, understanding that it is part of the deal, that since we are intertwined, another person’s difficulties are mine to bear and it is my job to bear them patiently, not to allow the wrongs to shut off the connection, but to be long suffering and to continue to let the love flow.

In Preparation for Rosh Hashanah: Thoughts on Hannah's Prayer

We Jews, when we think of prayer, we think of something fixed -- words written down for us in the siddur and times designated for us – the morning, the afternoon, the evening, shul on Shabbat. But there is also another type of prayer, one that is less talked about. It is the spontaneous prayer of the heart in moments of intense need or joy.

This is the prayer of Hannah (I Samuel 1), and indeed the type of prayer we hear throughout the Tanakh (think Yaakov in his terror before he meets a brother who he thinks wants to kill him). Hannah is a suffering soul, sad and bitter and lonely. Years have gone by and she still has no child, though her co-wife does. Each year, when the family travels to Shiloh to bring sacrifices, she is reminded anew of what is missing and of the pain of being a childless woman. What is her response to this suffering? She goes to the sanctuary and cries out to God in her distress.

She is sad and so she turns to God. What do we do when we are sad? Do we turn to prayer in this way, try to find solace in pouring out our hearts to the Eternal Ear, to the One who will always listen? The Piasetzner Rebbe recommends just this. He says that moments of intense emotion, whether sadness or joy, anxiety or fear, these moments are openings of the soul – opportunities to access our soul and connect to God in a real way that is normally blocked to us.

And it also feels good. It feels good not because our prayers are always answered. They aren’t. Hannah’s is indeed answered; she goes on to have the child, Shmuel. But the text is very specific in saying that even before she became pregnant, immediately when she left the sanctuary after her encounter with God, paneha lo hayu lah od, literally, “she no longer had the same face.” She was changed in some way, less sad and lonely, full of optimism and also, I imagine, full of a sense of the presence of God. Whether or not our prayers are answered, if we pray earnestly in these moments – from the depths of our hearts and souls – if we can really cry and pour out our sorrows, no matter how small—then we will feel better, not because the situation that is bothering us is necessarily resolved, but because we have connected to God; we feel heard; we feel connected; we are no longer alone.

On Rosh Hashanah we will read Hannah’s story. We will read her story in the midst of long days of prayer. As we prepare for these days, we can practice opening our hearts like Hannah, learning to turn to God in all types of moments – when we feel embarrassed and ashamed, proud and capable, insecure and unsure. We go through so many emotional states in a day, triggered by little events in our lives or just by the shifting clouds of our emotions. Each of these states is an opportunity to connect to God in prayer, to learn to actually cry in prayer like Hannah, to feel the connection and know that we are not alone.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Parashat Ki Tetze: On Yibum and Other People's Honor

The mitzvah of yibum in this week’s parsha has something to teach us about the ego.

The Torah tells us that if there are two brothers and one dies, married but without having any children, then the other brother must marry the dead brother’s wife and the first child they have together is considered the dead brother’s and continues his name. Indeed the point of this mitzvah is so that “his name may not be blotted out in Israel.”

In other words, this mitzvah is about doing something for the sake of someone else’s name, for the sake of another person’s honor and reputation in the world. How often do we actually do an act whose whole purpose is to increase the honor of someone else?

If, however, the live brother decides that he does not wish to marry his dead brother’s wife, then a ritual is performed freeing him from this obligation, a ritual in which the woman removes his shoe and spits in his face. From then on his family is known as beit halutz hana’al, “the house of the removed shoe.”

So basically because he didn’t care about his brother’s “name,” he loses his own name. There is a deep truth here: when we don’t care about the honor of our fellow we actually do ourselves a dishonor. The ego makes us think that honor is a zero sum game – the more someone else has, the less I have. But in practice, what ends up happening is that honor multiplies – the more you give it out to others, the more you have yourself. As Pirke Avot says, Eizehu mekhubad? Hamekhabed et habriyot. Who is considered honorable? One who honors others.

We get honor ourselves by giving honor. We lose it by withholding it or not generously bestowing it.

It sounds so simple but in practice it is quite hard. We feel innately that honor will only come to us if we are somehow above others, if we show ourselves to be better, smarter, more humble . . . than the next person. And so we try to show off our good parts and point out the faults of our fellows. But what often happens is that this smallness of mind and heart in ourselves only makes us look (and feel) bad. The people we most admire in this world are the ones who are able to hand out honor and compliments and good vibes to those around them, not the ones who make it known how smart or successful they are.

The mitzvah of yibum encourages us to change our thinking about honor: to look, not for ways to increase our own honor, but to actually think about how we might increase the honor of others.

Yehi k’vod chaverkha chaviv alekha keshelkha. “The honor of your friend should be as dear to you as your own.”

Friday, September 9, 2016

Parashat Shoftim: Appointing Judges for the Self

Shoftim veshotrim titen likha bekhol she’arekha. Appoint for yourself judges and enforcers in all your gates.
Though the literal meaning refers to the creation of a judicial system in society, there is a Hasidic reading which understands this command as referring to the inner workings of each individual.

Appoint for yourself judges and enforcers at all your gates. Watch yourself. And don’t let those judges take bribes – don’t be bribed by the evil inclination. But stand firm in judging each choice you make with care. Don’t just slide along according to your habit or natural inclination or the normal way of society, but evaluate what really is right in a situation. Be your own judge and choose thoughts and actions based on this judgment.

This does not mean one should engage in the type of extreme self-judgment that a lot of us suffer from. On the contrary, what it means to set up a judge ahead of time is that one is consciously making choices about both thought and action and not giving credence to that inner critic which is often on the side of the evil inclination, tearing us down so that we will not have the confidence to act in the world. It means creating a little bit of distance, the appropriate distance of a judge so that one does not get carried away by the emotions of self deprecation or insecurity but can see the situation more clearly. We are, most of all, judging the side of us that weighs us down, judging it in order to allow for the light of our true divine spark.

To judge and to enforce is another way of saying: you have choices in a situation; make the right choice. This week in my Mussar group, we have been studying the concept of choice in life. It is also especially relevant to this time of year. We are not talking here about the type of judgment that leads to a heavy heart, but on the contrary the type of judgment that leads one to a feeling of freedom based on the clarity of insight that one has choices in life; we are not stuck or tied to our depressive or stressed way of life, but we are capable of choosing differently; this type of judgment leads to a light, free heart, full of the optimism of freedom and possibility.

May we learn to judge wisely.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Parashat Re'eh: Help for the Lost

We often get lost in life. Lost in thought. Lost in our priorities – confused about what is important and what to pay attention to. Lost in a whirl of stress and details without clearly feeling or seeing the underlying meaning and purpose.

Two words struck me in this week’s parsha: uvo tidbakun. “And to Him you should attach yourself (Deut 13:5).” Attach yourself. Don’t move to the right or to the left. Stick to Him. He will be your compass. Don’t get lost in all the nonsense that surrounds you. Some of that nonsense is important, to be sure, and important in the very pursuit of sticking to God, but all of it needs that infusion of basic purpose. To do the dishes with a sense of purpose is different than to do the dishes in a harried, irritated way. Uvo tidbakun. Let the purpose of serving God infuse your every moment and direct you.

It’s a matter of holiness and purpose, a matter of keeping a sense of God’s presence in your mind as you go through the day. You are a creature with a divine spark and also a divine purpose. Stick to those notions and don’t let go, no matter the traffic or the appointments or the sudden children’s illness that interrupt your schedule. Though it all, stick to God, stick to your sense of a divine purpose and the holiness of your life and work, even in its details.

The Sefat Emet says that the month of Elul (which we are about to begin) is a time to realign ourselves with our basic divine purpose in life, to remind ourselves that Ani Ledodi -- I am for my Beloved (God) and I am really ONLY for my Beloved. Yes, during the rest of the year we need to be involved in many things, but during the month of Elul, we plug back in and remind ourselves that all the details are connected to one purpose. Everything else fades away.

May we work to feel this complete attachment and this clarity and may it truly elevate our everyday living and liberate us from stress.