Archive | D’var Torah

Pure joy comes when you give from the heart

Posted on 04 October 2018 by admin

The theme of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the eight-day festival we just concluded, is “simcha,” happiness and joy. To be sure, there is an experience of joy within every Jewish holiday. The difference, however, is that other emotions are usually mixed into the picture, such as the recent days of awe and the sense of freedom provoked during Passover, whereas Sukkot is permeated with pure joy. In our prayers, we refer to it as “the time of our rejoicing.”
Every culture has its own way of celebrating. In some settings, the inner mood of happiness is softer, more contained, even rehearsed. Other times, the expression of joy is set free, more spontaneous and explosive. During Sukkot, and specifically the dancing of Simchat Torah, our celebration with the Torah spills into the streets in front of synagogues as we pull down buckets of blessings and carry the images and memories into the year.
There is an aphorism about the effect of happiness — “simcha breaks through barriers.” The surface interpretation of this phrase is that when this uplifting feeling flows through you, it helps overcome personal inhibitions or perceived limitations. A person who feels genuinely happy can slip off the chains of logic and act in a way that defies the normal mode.
It also removes external obstacles, even heavenly decrees. Commenting on the verse “the Lord is your shadow” (Psalm 121:5), the Baal Shem Tov interprets the word “shadow” (usually taken to mean protection) to indicate that just as a person’s shadow corresponds to his movements, so too G-d relates to us according to our behavior and our attitudes.
Simply put, there is an ongoing relationship whereby our actions (or emotions) cause a mirroring effect above. When a person is happy down here, it creates a corresponding joy within the heavens. And just like the internal experience transcends the usual limitation/restrictions, so too above, at the time of happiness, all barriers and restrictions/limits are nullified/removed.
On a deeper psychological level, “simcha breaking barriers” means that most barriers we perceive are often illusions. And through feeling happiness, the illusion that these barriers exist falls away.
The boundless quality of joy does not stem from any reasoning, but rather a deeper force inside us, an unexpected fortune or sense of gratitude beyond what the heart can contain.
Any fulfilment based on condition or reason — success, accomplishment or desire — is limited. But when based on commitment, motivation about doing what’s right, connecting to above, mitzvah — then it taps into unlimited energy, which in turn affects that which rises above limitations, which is true joy.
Genuine joy stems from commitment, the motivation to move beyond one’s comfort and connect to a higher purpose.
In the Jewish cycle, the themes behind the full month of holidays are not incidental; they are specifically the commitment we established on Rosh Hashanah, reaching to the source of all life, then the introspection and cleansing on Yom Kippur, that allows for the true experience and expression of happiness that plays out during Sukkot.
As it applies to the rest of the year, happiness must penetrate into the three spiritual pathways — “Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness.” And here too, we must seek to break limits.
When it comes to balancing the obligation to give — the desire to make a difference in somebody else’s life — and the counter voice inside calling to look after oneself, a common approach is “first take care of yourself, then you’ll be in a better position to give to others.” A similar view sparks the overused counsel of “you can’t really love others if you don’t first love yourself.”
The problem with the above mentality is that while you’re striving to make progress in the first stage, the second stage usually suffers — once you start focusing on improving or loving yourself, there is no end to the “self’s” demands. It often results in a bourgeois outlook, a measured giving aimed at feeling good. But true wisdom and spiritual growth comes only through sacrifice.
On the other hand, it is difficult to give happily when you are busy, feeling weak or overwhelmed.
One approach to resolving this tension begins with changing our perception of the conflict and division between these two. The key comes through internalizing how, through connecting with someone else, a person refines himself in a way that could never be achieved while alone and focused inward.
In other words, helping another is an essential part of fixing oneself and should never be completely pushed aside or delayed. It’s only a question of how many calculations are made. Indeed, the Hebrew word for tzedakah shares a root with (tzedek) “just” — a moral requirement, not simply an altruistically inspired act.
More practically, when a person designates a fixed time in the schedule for giving to others, knowing that during this part of the day they must go against the grain and give more, this sacrifice of personal advancement for the sake of uplifting another in turn benefits the giver immeasurably. This sacrifice also includes “spiritual tzedakah” — being charitable with one’s time, breaking away from one’s busy schedule to be with, teach, share wisdom or advise another.
The fifth Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty, known as “the Tzemach Tzedek,” once guaranteed that the merit of giving tzedakah will lift the person to the extent that the mind and the heart are, in the process, refined thousandfold. The result is that a project or business deal, for example, which would have taken the person 1,000 hours to complete, due to challenges, hindrances or insight, will end up being accomplished in only an hour because the internal faculties of the person, and the outside world, have been enhanced.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Don’t let fear block your heart from love

Posted on 13 September 2018 by admin

“Take good care of yourself.” A common phrase with different implications, depending on the context. If we look further, the question becomes what is “the self” — which aspect of you needs attention, and how do you take care of it?
When it comes to physical health, for example, taking care of yourself may mean giving your body what it needs to be strong — making sure to exercise, eating healthy and getting the proper amount of rest and recuperation.
Taking care of yourself mentally entails avoiding negative thinking patterns, being patient with perceived shortcomings — not being too “hard on yourself” and choosing to stay away from toxic characters or activities.
There is an ongoing relationship, an interaction born of tension, whereby one part of us nurtures, neglects or harms another part.
William Faulkner, in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, mentioned “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Jewish mystical teachings describe this inborn conflict in a broader context, not only as a split within the heart, but as a struggle between two distinct souls inside us, each vying for control over our consciousness, feelings and actions.
In this context, when speaking of a relationship with the “yourself,” the person can look at the godly soul inside with great pain and compassion, realizing how through ignorance or unwise decisions, the most powerful and sublime spark was dragged through the mud, roughed up and suffocated — the imposed environment of a personal exile and prickly path that, if understood properly, would never have been chosen, yet in the long run (after the fact) is paved with lessons and unique opportunities for redemption.
Imagine witnessing an innocent child, who you are entrusted to care for, being beaten up or treated unfairly. You feel sadness, anger and outrage. So too, many of the experiences and emotional traumas people endure, from the moment the soul is thrust into an unfamiliar setting, leave their mark. Much of our drive and ambition — even “standing up for yourself” — is a form of protecting that child inside us who carries memories of the psychological blows and cuts that parents, instructors, peers or the larger world has thrown over the years.
And so, we arrive at the most auspicious time of the Jewish year for repair and new and better beginnings. Superficially, the current buzz words of teshuvah (repentance) and kaparah (atonement) are all about wiping the slate clean, seeking forgiveness from people and from G-d. But, within the broader spiritual framework, these holidays are just as much about reaching a new level of thinking — how we view and relate to ourselves.
In developing our own self-awareness, we automatically discover habits that are totally unworthy of us or decisions that conflict with what we truly value. In this sense, honest introspection can be a tricky maze of memories and emotions. We must tread a fine line between being too frivolous and easily forgiving oneself, dismissing damaging actions with excuses, or holding oneself accountable — a cathartic regret that also allows for letting go afterward, without carrying along the shame or guilt.
The beautiful facet of teshuvah (literally “returning”) and this day of kaparah (“cleansing”) is that whenever you sincerely go through it, it’s done; it counts—even if there will be a relapse.
Yom Kippur is about reconnecting to ideals to fulfill our unique potential. But reconnecting requires change, an internal elevation and willpower. Change begins in the heart. The heart is naturally untamed, always running from place to place, one scene to another, wavering between holy and harmful attractions.
We face critical decisions throughout the day. The power to choose freely stems from a deep level of the soul, but there are two conscious emotions that make tough choices easier.
The mainstay of the “heart” — our emotions and character traits — begins with love and fear. Love drives you to move closer. Fear pulls you away. The natural undeveloped soul applies its power of love to physical pursuits and gratification. Likewise, fear manifests as fear of failure, financial loss, dreading social rejection and so forth.
Inside the rival soul, however, these same traits of love and fear are applied differently. Loves propels us to give, to do good. Fear (of consequences) keep us from doing something immoral or destructive, even when, in the moment, we are pulled toward it.
Throughout the Torah, cultivating these two main emotions in our relationship with G-d is stressed time and again. “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your G-d ask of you? Only that you FEAR the Lord your G-d and LOVE Him (Devarim 10:12)”
The lowest level of fear is anticipation of the consequences — worrying about harm to oneself.
A higher fear is blended within the emotion of love — when you love something enough, you automatically are afraid to be separated from it. In spiritual terms, all sin separates—affecting our soul connection through the display of disloyalty.
Healthy fear, the antidote, comes from the awareness of G-d’s presence, wherein this consciousness creates humility and prevents rash decisions. A more sophisticated development in the emotion is when fear merges to become awe, the overwhelming sense of being minuscule within the face of a much grander force, a feeling that naturally inspires a healthy mix of regret, embarrassment and renewed loyalty — and we are in “the Days of Awe.”
In this era, where spiritual movements and philosophies are explored almost like a hobby or trend, there is plenty of love to go around. Fear, on the other hand, is often misunderstood, looked at as “old school,” or some primitive view of a punitive deity. But in Jewish view, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d. (Psalms 111:10, Proverbs 9:10)”
This type of fear is not simply watching your back or wondering “what will happen to me?” It stems from an awareness of where we stand. Its taking that same natural emotion and directing it where it belongs: to the primary mover of the universe, the source of life.
In kabalistic terminology, fear and love are the two wings that lift us beyond the animal world. Embracing love without fear, or vice versa, the soul attempts to soar with only one wing.
The deeper accomplishment during these “Days of Awe” is removing the blockage over the heart and soul to reveal the latent love and fear. Being able to feel healthy emotions is itself a gift, but this gift only comes as a response to our toil during these times—through teshuvah (regret and resolve), tefillah (prayer and attachment), tzedakah (charity and community work)—determining the fruitfulness in all areas for the coming year.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Don’t ignore blessings for fear of what ‘could’ be

Posted on 29 August 2018 by admin

This week in Parashat Ki Tavo, we read an entire section of blessings and curses, though mostly curses.
I will admit that I normally read over the curses as quickly as possible because they aren’t at all pleasant. I don’t know why, but this year, one particular curse resonated with me in a way that it hadn’t before. I have felt for a long time that I have led a privileged life, a life filled with blessing. But this year, it was the curse that caught my attention.
Deuteronomy 28:66-67 reads: “The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ — because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.”
The times we are currently living through feel precarious and uncertain. I have been appalled by what my eyes have seen. I have lived in dread of what the future might bring us. There is so much anger and hatred in the world today that it fills me with fear. I cannot honestly say, however, that there is more to fear today than in previous centuries. Europe 75-80 years ago was far, far worse. The Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49 were devastating. The Crusades were not fun times to live through for anyone. Maybe it’s precisely because I have led a privileged life, a life filled with blessing, that today’s uncertainty feels so dreadful.
Toward the end of her life, my great-aunt, Lillian, also lived in dread. It’s not that she had a bad life or that bad things had happened to her. On the contrary, she lived a very good, very comfortable life. But I think it was the dementia she suffered at the end of her life that gave rise to the dread she felt. When I went to visit her, she didn’t remember me specifically, but she remembered my mother and that my mother had sons, so she welcomed my visits.
The conversation always started with the same cycle of questions filled with fear. The best I could do was try to steer the conversation into one of the other two cycles of questions that were less fear-filled. It was during these visits that I learned an important lesson. I couldn’t do anything for my aunt’s day-to-day life — she was lost to her own world. Nor would she remember my visits or how often I came. But I could brighten the moments that I spent with her and lift her fear in those specific moments.
What we dread is what we fear could come to be, “could” being the critical word. “Could” is the critical word because “could” means that what we fear might not come to be. For sure, we live in uncomfortable and uncertain times. It would truly be a curse, however, to ignore the blessings we enjoy right now in these moments to live only in fear of what might, but might never, be.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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This month of preparation is no ordinary month

Posted on 23 August 2018 by admin

When looking at the current period within the Jewish calendar, a common misperception is that next month is a big deal — “the High Holy Days” — but now we’re still in ordinary times. But as with any major event in life, the preparation period possesses its own distinct flavor, a mix of anxious anticipation and excitement that prods focused effort, a collection of necessary steps to embrace the moment, so you don’t find yourself in an awkward position, standing on the big stage in stunned hypnotic stillness as the bright lights suddenly come on.
In some ways, the preparation period is even more precious and valuable than the main event. What we do in the absence of an externally imposed urgency, when things appear routine, can be the most telling mark of character. It also sets the tone for our performance when it really counts.
Elul — this month of preparation — has a unique character and appeal: There are two general modes of ongoing interaction between us and God, between the soul and its source. The first is likened to an ethereal waterfall — heavenly streams and messages that fall to us and manifest in feelings of inspiration, prompting our action. The other mode begins with human initiative — grinding, digging, climbing the spiritual ladder — before detecting a response.
Within the yearly cycle, this is the time when we activate our strength to connect. Drifting through Jewish communities across the world, is a fresh breeze of heartfelt prayer and teshuva — a struggle to return to personal peak form. Nevertheless, as we strive to progress during the month leading up to the Days of Awe, we receive a hidden push like a supernatural tailwind that elevates our effort through divine compassion, a unique form of “the 13 attributes of mercy.”
The Code of Jewish Law refers to the onset of Elul as an eit ratzon, a time of goodwill. Simply put, some periods are riper than others to achieve desired results. In a marriage, for example, receiving a check-in call from one’s spouse at the office is not the same quality of bonding as entering the home, sitting comfortably together and talking face-to-face with tenderness. So too, there are more intimate stages within our abstract spiritual connection, windows when God comes closer and is more approachable, so to speak, which provides tremendous opportunities.
This favorable period is not random; it has a history. On the first day of Elul, Moses ascended to Mount Sinai a third time, staying there 40 days, until Yom Kippur, which marked the completion of forgiveness. He then descended, holding the second tablets of the covenant. Ever since, Elul has been distinguished as days of goodwill, with the 10th day of Tishrei stamped as “the day of atonement.”
Four classic verses hint at how to tap into the power of Elul. In the first, noted by Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), the letters spelling the name Elul are the same initial letters of the words “(God) caused it to happen, and I will provide (a place) for you (to which he can flee)” (Exodus 21:13). The literal context of this verse involves establishing “a city of refuge,” a protected area where someone who has accidently killed runs to be healed. The broader hint is that Elul is a refuge in time, the opportunity for personal rehabilitation, and the rectification of any slips over the past year, even inadvertent blunders.
Since Elul is the preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of creation, the prime service during this month entails the three pillars that uphold the world — Torah, prayer and deeds of loving kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2). These are also the channels to refine our thoughts, speech and action.
While the general function of Elul as a spiritual refuge in time, a more specific reference is to Torah study — purifying the mind. As the Talmud says, “The words of Torah offer refuge.”
Perhaps the most famous phrase associated with Elul is, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me,” which refers to tefillah (prayer), the daily purpose of which is to join man and God. Finally, Elul is the same initial letters of the phrase “each person (shall give) to his fellow, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22) — an obvious reference to tzedakah (charitable acts). During Elul, the commentaries conclude, a person should be quick to pursue these pillars and increase them with more intensity.
The core, the internal ignition for us to travel smoothly down these three pathways toward the metaphysical “city of refuge” is teshuva (return). This inner shift is alluded to in another verse whose opening letters spell Elul: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Such a cryptic phrase — possessing a natural association with the fleshly process — begs explanation, and there are many. In the view of the Ramban (Nachmanides), the passage forecasts the ultimate transformation, a return to the pristine environment of Gan Eden, where man lived in perfect harmony.
Tradition relates that the primordial sin sent the world out of order. After being exiled from the garden and its beauty, man yearned for the light in which he once lived. Then, in the blackness of night, he fumbled around and found two stones. Rubbing them against each other, he saw a spark fly out — which provided hope that he would eventually return to the brightness in Gan Eden. Though a physical flame is but a poor flicker compared to the heavenly brilliance, it is reminiscent of the great light.
Jewish mystic teachings explain that our task in this world is to put things back in order, beginning with fixing “the miniature world,” ourselves. Sometimes a person feels dried up inside, like a dark dead planet. The soul has forgotten its song. What face, sound or sentence will revive its memory is yet unknown.
But there is fresh hope. Elul is the auspicious time to remove all internal obstacles to growth and joy. Only, unlike the above verse, where “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart,” we begin to make the change ourselves. At the same time, we have extra assistance from this “month of mercy” to return to God and uncover our ideal self.
As the shofar is customarily sounded each morning (as practice), we are reminded that what we do right now, during these days, is most valuable. For soon, we will be tiny figures placed on the grand stage, singing in the synagogue with pleading prayers that pull blessings and renewed life into the entire year. Let’s not miss this opportunity to plant internal seeds — developing the consciousness, an alert mind and healthy emotions — that will easily blossom into a sweet, healthy new year.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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God gives us both natural and supernatural

Posted on 01 August 2018 by admin

One of the pervading and profound themes throughout Torah is that from one Infinite Source emanates two inherent features within all creation — light and darkness, good and evil, heaven and earth, spiritual and physical, male and female, and so forth. Our job is to, in some way, reconcile or unite these two contrasting elements.

Sometimes, this reconciliation involves moral clarification, recognizing what harmful elements to avoid or disengage from and what to embrace. Other times it may entail working to create harmony between or unite two separate entities, as in a marriage.

Today, we will discuss a spiritual application that helps to refine our mind.

A recent appearance in the Torah occurs after verses speaking about the delivery from Egypt and entrance to the land of Israel, where we encounter a fundamental verse: “You shall comprehend today and instill in your heart, that Havayah (the Eternal) is Elokim (God) in heaven above and on the earth below; there is nothing else.” –Deuteronomy 4:39

A name, in general, is only a word, an arbitrary title used by people to refer to something or someone. Divine names describe specific manifestations or attributes. Here, we have two: The name Havayah (used for God’s essential Name spelled with the four letters — yud, hei, vav, hei) appears exactly 1,820 times throughout the five books of the Torah. We refer to it as the “essential Name,” or “the unique Name.” It may only be pronounced in the Holy Temple; its correct pronunciation is no longer known today.

The name Elokim is the title first used in the opening line of the Torah — “In the beginning, ‘God’ created…”

Biblical commentaries explain that the name Havayah brings limitless revelation or kindness; Elokim enacts judicious restraint. In a mystical context, it’s the power to shield, hiding the overwhelming expansive divine energy from our perception (as reflected in Psalms 84:12: “a sun and a shield is Havayah and Elokim).”

Havayah is also the source for all miracles; Elokim leads to nature (its composition of Hebrew letters even possesses the same numerical value as “the nature”). The connection between the above characteristics — restraint/concealment and nature — is that by blocking the intensity of the “light,” Elokim makes room for independent existence and multiplicity: a created system which we call “the natural world,” with consistent predictable ways of operating.

As a general principle, the power to hide simultaneously allows for focused divulgence. If a genius instructor, for example, decides to just impart the quantity and quality of ideas — exactly as they initially appear in the mind — the overwhelmed student could never grasp the information. But by filtering the amount of information — “light” — and simplifying the concepts, according to the mental capacity of the recipient, that student can now process and integrate the teaching.

The reason that the first words of the Torah, the passage describing creation, references a name connoting concealment is because although the process comes from Havayah, it is funneled through Elokim (the screen of nature). Later, the verses in Deuteronomy instruct us to recognize how these names — with opposing traits — are, in fact, manifestations of the same essence.

Plugging in the attributes conveyed by these titles, the supernatural (Havayah) and the natural (Elokim), the most basic understanding is perhaps that the same God is responsible for both miraculous events. In addition to negating the notion that existence is only physical substance — or that the laws of nature function independently — this contemplation also extends to rethinking the boundaries of supernatural and natural.

The way the term “natural” is defined in one system is not necessarily how it applies in another. From one perspective, just because something is non-material doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.

The lower aspects of the soul’s life-giving energy invigorating the body, while immaterial, can still be classified as belonging to the natural system, possessing a defined structure. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as “the natural soul.” Then, there are deeper aspects of our soul, more transcendent features of our being, that possess more potency and unlimited capacities.

More poetically, but no less precisely, we can create “inner miracles” when we tap into the more “supernatural” levels of the soul, which can then penetrate and influence our natural behavior (e.g., inclinations) and surroundings by allowing us to break barriers and achieve results we once thought to be impossible.

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Moses’ memory tricked him at the wilderness

Posted on 20 July 2018 by admin

Memory can be a tricky thing. I know that when I recall past events, I don’t always get all the details correct. Sometimes I don’t manage to get any of the details correct.
It’s like that song from Gigi (if I remember correctly), where two of the characters are reminiscing back and forth: “We met at 9. We met at 8. I was on time. No, you were late. Ah, yes, I remember it well.” The emotional memory was strong and accurate, even if the details were completely off. And that’s what makes memory so tricky because we might vividly remember how we felt, even though we don’t recall an accurate memory of events as they occurred.
This week, we start the fifth and final book in the Torah, Devarim, which is conveniently the name of both the book and the portion. The entire book is Moses’ recollection and final charge to the Israelites whom he has led for the past 40 years. There we were about to cross over the Jordan River, and Moses was preparing for his own death. So, Moses began to recount the events that led them to that moment in our history and leave final instructions for our own benefit and relationship with God.
But this is where the tricky memory part comes in. In recounting how the 12 spies entered the Land of Israel to scout out the land, Moses blames the People of Israel for him not being allowed to enter the Land (Deuteronomy 1:37): “Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too, and God said: ‘You shall not enter it either.’” Oh, yes, Moses remembered it well, if not accurately.
In actual fact, it wasn’t until sometime later, after the incident with the spies (see Numbers Chapters 13 and 14) and when they had arrived at the wilderness of Kadesh (see Numbers Chapter 20), that Moses is barred from entering the Land of Israel. Famously, Moses strikes the rock to bring out water for a thirsty and complaining people, instead of invoking God’s name to bring out water. And in response? (Numbers 20:12) “But the Eternal said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’”
What an emotional blow it must have been to Moses that he had led the People of Israel for all that time, only to lose his temper and lose his chance to make it to the Promised Land. I understand and empathize with the emotional memory that they had provoked him and it was their provocation that made Moses miss out. But that wasn’t was really happened.
It is important, vital even, to remember where we have come from before we are able to move forward. It is equally important that our memories be as accurate as possible to the actual event. When we argue with each other about past events, it’s quite possible that both sides are experiencing completely accurate memories of how they felt, while simultaneously remembering the actual event differently. We might perfectly recall our feelings, while conflating them onto inaccurate recollections of events. After all, memory is a tricky thing.
Rabbi Benjamin D. Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Prayer is, above all, a personal connection

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

Prayer is a broad but tricky subject. Some may view prayer solely as an opportune time to ask for things — a more mature version of a kid going through the aisles of a grocery store, pulling attractive items off the shelf. Another unrefined conception is the prayer is like pleading with a grand judge, trying to change God’s initial plans. But Jewish prayer is not only requesting or beseeching. In fact, if one examines the bulk of the passages in the formal prayer book, only a small portion contain requests.
The opposite extreme — equally wide of the mark — is the mistaken notion of prayer as a passive means of communicating, whether intuitive meditation, opening oneself up to receive messages or guidance; submitting information and seeing what comes back. Jewish prayer is anything but passive.
So what purpose does prayer serve?
The simple answer is that although God does not need our prayers, there is a created system wherein our words, our effort, can have a powerful effect — “Call out and I will answer you! I long for your handiwork” (Job 14:15).
More notably, prayer is meant to affect ourselves, used more for internal growth and benefit than to achieve desired results. We pray to remind ourselves that ultimately our existence is dependent on God. We reflect; we listen to what’s going on inside us. In this sense, when we experience a renewal, a change, we also tap into the heavenly source, alter our path and cause an adjustment in the current situation.
Tracing the grammatical root of the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is a subject of discussion. Some trace it to pileil, which can mean praise. In psalms, this word means “to struggle” or “battle.” Other scholars link it to tofel, which means to glue together. And both of these translations come closer to the essential concept of prayer in Judaism.
More than any request, the purpose of Jewish prayer is about connection. Connection comes through change, and any significant change comes through struggle. This is not to say the struggle has to be bitter, burdensome or unpleasant, only that there is a goodness that is a gift and other blessings that we must earn.
We find ourselves stuck within a physical body and an ever-evolving external world. The goal is to connect. There are two general modes of connecting. One starts from “below” — our standpoint — and we work to elevate. The other seeks to draw light into the world, and within us. These are prayer and Torah study, respectively.
Prayer is referred to Jacob’s ladder, “set on the earth and its top reaching to heaven.” It has many rungs. Each step upward is a movement from the confines of physical existence toward the expanses of heavenly realm.
The set order of the daily prayers in the siddur (from the word order) with select scriptural and lyrical passages, was carefully designed to incorporate all spiritual and material needs, as well as progressive stages of meditation. The mystical commentaries further explain how, climbing the rungs of prayer, the layers of the soul are lifted until the essential soul becomes unified with the source within the infinite luminary from which it was hewn (during the pinnacle of prayer, the Amidah).
For this reason, kabalistic texts describe the time of tefillah as an intense communion — “a marital union,” where the “children” are the internal changes, the renewed appreciation and resulting emotions.
The Talmud (Taanis 2a), explaining a scriptural verse, refers to prayer as “service of the heart” (avodah shebalev). The Hebrew word “avodah” means more than “service” or “work” — it suggests exertion in refining our character and the world around us. “The heart” refers to emotions. The main effort during prayer is to arrive at the feeling of love. Love is the fuel that brings us to connection. One may wonder: Can someone really increase love? While love is in the heart, it is the focused reflection within the mind that stimulates the feelings. For this reason, the line of “Shema Yisroel” — contemplating God’s unity — comes directly before the command “you shall love…” And when you love something enough — “with all your might” — you will do whatever it takes to maintain that connection. This pathway includes removing all obstacles to connection, which leads to the second facet of prayer — to weaken the natural “animalistic energy and impulses,” or self-absorption, that builds a barrier to transcendence, ranging from muddled fears to excessive pride and ego.
There are moments when we are struck with a sense of being so small within something much larger. During the daily routine, however, it’s rare, unless we are able to get quiet. Prayer is the time to implant awareness in our heart, to sort through emotions and align feelings with knowledge.
The prerequisite to approach God in prayer is a basic consciousness and humility. As the Talmud puts it, a phrase that is displayed over the ark containing Torah scrolls in many synagogues, is “Know Before Whom You Stand.” Then, during prayer, as we gaze at the words, there’s the pervading attitude of sincerity — remaining pure and simple in our approach. If the heart is not involved, if it’s just rote recitation, then there is no real tefillah.
Outside of periods of intense inspiration, or desperation provoking profound pleas, the process of prayer rarely flows smoothly. Our minds are oriented toward fleshly needs and pleasures, pressing tasks or enticing distractions. Prayer — aligning the mind, awakening a dull heart — is comparable to a spiritual workout; just as daily physical exercise increases the blood flow and promotes our biological systems, prayer causes the divine spark inside us to surface and expand — boosting the soul’s circulation. Just as workouts are meant to be hard — an athlete embraces the struggle and pain — likewise, with focused prayer.
To get going in tefillah requires channeling the body’s vitality, pushing through laziness, pulling the drifting mind back, gathering strength — from the depth — to remove internal blockage and resistance, until “wringing out the soul.” It’s a battle, a test of character. How hard we try during these installed periods of refuge is often a measure of what we accomplish.
Because prayer is such a staple of our religious sustenance, most of us are well aware of the personal challenges we face in this area. For some individuals, it’s simply a strain to follow the prayer service, or the need to get acquainted with the Hebrew language, or the structure of each service. Others know what to do, but struggle with follow through — staying mindful during the recitation, trusting that what should be happening during prayer is actually taking place. It is sometimes difficult to believe that we are reorienting ourselves toward God and spirituality, polishing or refining our minds and emotions with the formula that the sages set down. Or sometimes people are so rushed or robotic, they forget to try.
So, the primary purpose of prayer is to change ourselves, the joining with God. Transitioning from the period of tefillah to meet the workday, a person has increased confidence, as the soul is sturdy, less vulnerable to the chaotic vibrations of the surrounding environment. As one closes the prayer book, the mindset should be: “I just had a private connection and conversation with the Master of the Universe — what could possibly go wrong?”

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Balak was wrong: Changing places doesn’t change luck

Posted on 27 June 2018 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, includes one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and it reminds me of the beginning of The Princess Bride. You know, the part where Peter Falk visits his sick grandson, Fred Savage:
Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles….
Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.
Well, the story of Balaam in Parashat Balak has fighting, bribery, treachery, curses, an angel with a sword, a seer who cannot see, blessings for the Israelites, and a talking donkey. You’d have to wait for Shrek to get a talking donkey. I love this story.
There is a particularly puzzling section of the portion, the one in which Balak hires Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Balaam warns Balak that he is only able to say that which God commands him, but Balak wants Balaam to try cursing the Jewish people anyway. When Balaam blesses the people instead of cursing them, Balak rebukes Balaam and says (Numbers 23:13), “Come with me to another place from which you can see them — you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them — and damn them for me from there.”
They move to another location, but Balaam blesses the Jewish people again, and again Balak rebukes him and says (Numbers 23:27), “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps God will deem it right that you damn them for me there.”
They move to a third location, but Balaam blesses them a third time (Numbers 24:5): “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” He blesses them with a blessing that we use to this day every morning, not that Balak appreciated it at all. “‘I called you,” Balak said to Balaam, “to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them these three times. Back with you at once to your own place” (Numbers 24:10).
Place (makom in Hebrew) is important. Balak clearly believes that to change one’s place will change the outcome. In actual fact, there is a very old Jewish saying: meshane makom, meshane mazal, which means one who changes their place, changes their luck. The saying is based on a discussion in Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Daf 16b, in which they discuss four ways to change one’s fate. The discussion concludes: “And some say: a change of place.” That is, there are four agreed ways to change one’s fate, but some also claim that changing one’s place is a fifth way to change one’s fate. Thus the saying, meshane makom, meshane mazal.
Yet despite changing places twice, Balaam blesses the Jewish people all three times. Why doesn’t a change of place change the outcome, as Balak expects? One of the ways I reconcile this contradiction is to understand that God is merciful and forgiving, but not capricious.
It is not the literal and physical change of place that prompts God’s forgiveness, changing our fates. That would be capricious. Rather, God wants us to change the mental and spiritual places we find ourselves in, to prompt His forgiveness.
Sometimes, changing our physical location also changes our mental outlook leading to a change in our luck. But changing places without changing attitudes will never change our luck, contrary to everything that Balak would like to have believed.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim, Plano’s Reform congregation.

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The Top 5 ingredients of a meaningful life

Posted on 20 June 2018 by admin

“Top 5 Lists” of virtually anything you can think of have become prevalent in American culture. We see more enticing headlines than we can digest, requiring us to become better at sifting through online clutter, discerning the informative and meaningful content from clickbait and trending material posing as educated opinions.
Whatever the subject, there’s never a true “Top 5” or “Best Of” list; there are usually overhyped items, and key components are left out of the discussion. Nevertheless, while we research or reflect, the mental exercise of evaluating and ranking can itself help us to clarify overlooked features or call attention to priorities.
Blending personal experience with Jewish sources, here’s my list of Top 5 ingredients for a meaningful and productive life .
Your attitude: There’s no such thing as an easy life without challenges; an easy life teaches nothing. It’s just a question of when you will face adversity, and how much. Evaluating where you stand, there’s always a mixed bag to sort through — beautiful blessings to acknowledge along with areas of ongoing struggle, sore memories with cherished moments, personal victories alongside regretful defeats.
Your approach can paint the mental picture of your life. There’s the importance of perspective, for example, when looking back, wherein possessing “good memory” becomes not so much the amount of information recalled as how you mentally manage thoughts — forgetting the bad while remembering the good.
A good attitude can flip a memory from painful to positive, change a challenge into a pleasure, redirect an adversary to become an aide. Or if something remains painful, a positive outlook can make it much less potent, more bearable.
Emphasizing the limits of control over circumstances, and the unique role of our character, the Talmud boldly declares: “Everything rests in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven.” Looking to the future with strong faith (emunah) and trust (bitachon) is the most vital ingredient for success and happiness. As the Yiddish aphorism goes: “Think good and (consequently) it will be good.”
Your spouse: Finding a soulmate is one of the most awe-inspiring supernatural events smuggled within nature. There’s an extra dose of divine intervention in bringing two people together, the process of finding and maintaining a partner in life. This intense interfusion is said to be as “difficult as splitting the Red Sea.”
(In classical Jewish literature, this term is employed whenever two opposites are joined by a force that’s higher than both, as well as increased significance or attention given to an event.)
On one hand, two parts of the same heavenly soul-root reunite in the physical realm. Yet such a sacred union — a meeting of souls, minds, heart and bodies — is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts, “a couple.” And so is the powerful effect on the world, especially when spouses align their values, goals and focus, which results in “an everlasting edifice.”
Mystically, male without female and female without male, lack the completion of God’s name. But when two souls join in the right context, the half images of divinity, contained within each person, also unite. The passion that pulls husband and wife to each other has multiple layers, the most profound being a yearning to create new life and to recreate the full name of God among them.
The bond established through marriage, a love that continues to develop and deepen over time, knows no limits. Having a difficult partner versus a gem of a spouse can make all the difference in accomplishing your potential.
Health: The body takes the soul to places it could never visit alone, allowing it to accomplish a unique mission on earth. The relationship between body and soul can be likened to a horse and its rider. Ask a wild horse to let you ride it, it will buck. It wants to do its own thing. To ride it without worry, there is an option to “break” the horse in order to ensure cooperation. But in the end, there can be no true harmony.
There is another option — to build rapport so that the horse becomes an extension of the rider and those feet willingly travel anywhere the rider wishes.
You have one body. Treat it well. “A small hole in the body is a giant hole in the soul.” We need to be strong and energized in order to carry out the reason for which we were created and to add light to the lives of others around. If you don’t have your health, you don’t have the fuel to uplift your environment and endure a rich but rigorous life journey.
Children: They are your most tangible legacy and gift to the universe. There is a saying: “True Jewish wealth is not material — neither houses nor cars, but rather children who walk in the upright path, absorbing the wisdom in Torah and doing good deeds.” The goal is not simply to raise polite, well-mannered children who go to prestigious universities and proceed to have productive careers, yet make little impact on their community.
Treasure every moment with these precious souls you were entrusted with, those you brought into this world, to nurture and teach them well.
Finances: Financial stress can affect all the above areas. In the very first words of the verses with which the Kohanim bless the nation, the most famous and all-inclusive blessing around, the commentaries explain that the first phrase, “May God bless you,” imparts monetary prosperity. One reason is that physical well-being and financial stability is the platform for a person to grow spiritually and give in the fullest measure, without being weighed down or distracted.
Honorable mention
Guidance and friendship: “Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Appoint for yourself a Rabbi (Rav), acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.”
As we become older and more accomplished, we may mistakenly think we are experienced enough in most areas of life that we don’t need advice. The main reason behind this instruction is not so much that we lack the discernment to make our own decisions — whether with marital issues, parenting, business ethics or other moral dilemmas — as much as we may be too close to the situation to see clearly. “Love conceals all blemishes” (Proverbs 10:12) and the greatest love is self-love.
Therefore, “appoint yourself a teacher” — even if you have not yet found the best fit. This person will not only ensure we continue to progress and learn, but protect from the trappings of self-reliance.
“Acquire for yourself a friend” carries a slightly different flavor. Unlike a mentor, a friend is not simply appointed whether or not the person is an ideal fit. With a friendship, details matter. There must be mutual appreciation and trust. A true friend is someone with whom one can act freely, offering a level of comfort and safety to share flaws without any worry of being judged.
In the end, both relationships save us from unnecessary mistakes, hold us accountable and encourage us to grow. We should always be aware and appreciate that wise mentor and good friend upon whom we can rely.

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Moses’ greatest asset also his deepest tragedy

Posted on 06 June 2018 by admin

EFRAT, Israel — “‘ … And you shall strengthen yourselves, and you shall take from the fruits of the land.’ And the days were season of the first grapes.” (Numbers 13: 20)
Between the lines of the Bible, we glimpse the profound difficulties — and even tragedy — of Moses, the greatest prophet in history, as a leader who sees himself losing the fealty of the Hebrew nation. Moses feels that he is failing to direct the people he took out of Egyptian bondage toward the very goal of their Exodus: the conquest of and settlement of the land of Israel. Where has he gone wrong, and why?
From the very beginning of his ministry, when the Hebrews were at the lowest point of their Egyptian oppression, God instructs Moses to raise their depressed and despairing spirits with five Divine promises: “Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt, I will save you from their slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…, I will take you to Myself as a nation… and I will bring you to the land which I have sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; I shall give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.’” (Exodus 6:6-8)
Now Moses has already succeeded — thanks to the Divine miracles — in fulfilling the first four Divine “redemptions.” Only the final one is lacking: the entry of God’s nation into His land. What causes the Israelites to delay and even demur in fulfilling this final stage of redemption? It cannot only be that the 10 scouts — each princes of their respective tribes — were frightened by the superior strength of the Canaanite residents (Numbers 13:31) “We cannot go forward against these people… they are too strong for us”), since a war against the Canaanites was no greater trial than standing up to the superior power and might of Egypt, or diving into the Reed Sea. If God (through Moses) had demonstrated His ability to deliver them from the hands of the Egyptians, why do they now balk at taking on the Canaanites?
Apparently, something has changed during the intervening year between the splitting of the Reed Sea and the proposed conquest of the Promised Land. As we have seen in last week’s commentary, the Hebrews have intensified their complaining, not only asking for water — an existential need — but now by lusting after a more varied menu, from meat to fish and from cucumbers, to garlic! (Numbers 11:4, 5)
Moses is at his wit’s end; can it be that the Hebrews — after all the trials that they have successfully overcome — are now whining for the stinking sardines which they used to gather at the foot of the Nile during the period of their persecution and enslavement? (Ibid. 11:5) He feels totally inadequate to deal with them, preferring death at God’s hands to responsibility for leading such an ungrateful people (Ibid. 11:11-15).
God commands Moses to assemble 70 elders in the Tent of Communion, appointing them as his assistants in leading the people. God will cause some of Moses’ spiritual energy to devolve upon them, enabling the greatest of prophets to share his awesome responsibility of leadership (11:16,17). At the same time, God will send quails to allay the people’s lust for meat.
But then, in this week’s Biblical portion, Moses seems to make a gross miscalculation by sending out a reconnaissance mission, either initiated by God as an initial foray in order to map out the Israelites’ route toward conquest (Numbers 13:1, 2), or instigated by the people who wanted a report about what kind of enemy awaits them on their way to Israel (Deuteronomy 1:22). Moses apparently felt that this “new” Israelite mentality of kvetching and lusting was indeed impelled, even inspired, by food. He therefore exhorts them as they survey the terrain of the land and of the nature of the enemy — to “strengthen themselves, and take from the fruits of the land” to show to the Hebrews (13:20). Hopefully, the nation will be so excited by the huge and luscious grapes that they will embark on their conquest with alacrity! Apparently, what is actually now grabbing their attention is a gourmet diet.
What Moses fails to appreciate, I believe, is that the real problem lies not with an Israelite drive for nutritional pleasure but with his own form of “distance” leadership — whether from the lofty heights of Mount Sinai or the inner sanctum of the “Tent of Communion.” You will remember that Moses had initially rejected God’s offer of leadership because “I am a man who is heavy of speech and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). This cannot simply mean that he stuttered and stammered — because God immediately answers by saying, “Is it not I who gives (or takes away) speech?” Nevertheless, Moses continues to re-iterate his problem of being afflicted by “stopped-up lips” (aral sfatayim). I would maintain that Moses is actually saying that he is a man of heavy speech rather than friendly small talk, a prophet who is in almost constant contact with the Divine in issues of theology and law, morality and ethics. Moses is not a man of the people, a man of small talk and infinite patience who can “sell” God’s program to the Israelites by sugar-coating it. As the Bible itself testifies, “The Israelites did not listen to Moses because of his (Moses’!) lack of patience (kotzer ruah) and difficult Divine service” (Ralbag’s interpretation to Exodus 6:9). Moses, the “man (or husband) of God” (Deuteronomy 33:1) as well as the “servant of the Lord,” remains “distant” from the people; he is a prophet for all the generations more than a leader for his generation.
Indeed, Moses never walked among the people in the encampment; instead he dedicates his time to speaking to the Lord in the Tent of Communion, far removed from the encampment (Leviticus 1:1, Numbers 7:89). It is Eldad and Medad, the new generation of leader-prophets, who prophesy from within the encampment itself — and in the midst of the people (Numbers 11:26). Moses’ greatest asset — his closeness to God and his ability to “divine” the Divine will — is also his most profound tragedy, the cause of his distance from the people, his remoteness from the masses. A congregation needs to constantly be re-inspired and re-charged with new challenges and lofty goals if they are to be above petty squabbles and materialistic desires.
The kvetching is not because they really want the leeks and the onions; it is because they don’t know what they want. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, they actually need, as we all need, a mission, a purpose for being. This, however, will have to await a new leader, who may be less a man of God but more a man of the people.
Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat Israel.

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