Friday, November 18, 2011

Hello, To Whom am I Praying?

One of my favorite parts of camp is the Learner’s Minyan every Shabbat morning. In addition to the special community that we build, it also affords us a zman kavua (set time) to really struggle with fundamental questions about prayer. This summer, each week we discussed a different question regarding our relationship with prayer. We dealt with issues of changing liturgy, the need (or lack thereof) to understand the words, codified vs. spontaneous prayer, and many other difficult paradigms. This week, while reading through the parsha, I was reminded of one of my favorite discussions.

One week, I posed the following questions: when we request something from Hashem, what do our expectation? Do we expect an answer? Do we supposed that He will intercede? Do we even believe He listens (or cares)? Or maybe, we just need to vent a little, and "prayer" is a great outlet. Are we actually just speaking to ourselves? Is prayer more for me, or more for G-d?

In this weeks parsha, Parshat Chayei Sarah, we see two formulations of prayer. In the famous story of Eliezer returning to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for Isaac, Eliezer describes his preparation for this search with the words “לדבר אל ליבי” speaking to his heart. While contextually it seems to be describing him praying, it is a very strange phrasing. When we see the famous scene of Hannah praying, for example, the TaNaKh uses the word תתפלל, which means to pray. Here it seems as though Eliezer is merely talking to himself; the words, however, are directed at G-d.

This model of prayer seems to be one in which prayer is necessitated by our selves; though prayer does not necessarily affect G-d, it affects us, and that is the ikar (essence). Rabbi Julius Greenstone writes “Prayer does not affect G-d, but ourselves […] G-d needs none of our praises and supplications, but we feel impelled to pour out our hearts to Him and by doing this we come to be in greater harmony with our spiritual selves and with G-d.” Greenstone, importantly, notes that even this model of prayer strengthens our relationship with the Almighty, even though the prayer is not completely selfless.

Later in the Parsha, however, we have a new archetype for prayer. It says that Isaac went out to the field לשוח. While the meaning of the word is unclear, both Rashi and the Gmarah understand it to be prayer. Isaac seems to be in conversation with G-d; a conversation in which he expects a response. This notion, while drastically different from the prayer of Eliezer, fits nicely with our daily plea for G-d to hear our voices and accept favorably our prayers. If we understand prayer in this manner, prayer is for G-d and will potentially even warrant a response.

Somehow I believe that both of these seemingly contradictory models of prayer exist simultaneously. While I initially thought to suggest that every time that we pray with a new kavanah, we fall into a different category, I’m not sure I believe that. I think that each prayer, in itself, is both for us and for G-d. It is completely selfish, and completely selfless. It is both heavenly and worldly. It is local and universal.

Truth be told, I’m not yet convinced that I fully appreciate how this paradigm works. Does prayer exist in this way, or is prayer something different all together. I’d love to hear thoughts! Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

To Learn and to Teach

This week, in Parshat Vayeirah, we read one of the most famous, and most troubling, stories in the TaNaKh. G-d calls out to Avraham, commanding him to sacrifice his only son. As if that were not difficult enough, in two separate Midrashim we learn about how eager Avraham was to fulfill this strange mission.

In the first Midrash we wonder why G-d, when instructing Avraham, says, קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק. "Take now your son, your only one, who you love, take Isaac." Would simply saying "take Isaac" not suffice? The Midrash suggests that Avraham was so excited to do as Hashem commanded that he wanted to take both his sons!
(Imagine this interaction--G-d: Take your son, Avraham: I have two sons!, G-d: Your only one, Avraham: They are both their mothers only one!, G-d: The one you love, Avraham: I love them both, G-d: Isaac, Avraham: Oh). G-d had to keep narrowing it down, so that Avraham would only take one.

Another difficult Midrash asks why, after being commanded, it says: וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר "and Avraham got up early in the morning (to prepare for the Sacrifice)." Could it not have simply said "And Avraham got up?" Rather, the Midrash teaches us, that Avraham got up very early, because he was so excited to perform Hashem's will.

While at first these interpretations seem extremely difficult to understand (and I must admit, I still do not feel fully comfortable with them), I think their rationale is rooted in a belief (as articulated in yet a third Midrash) that G-d will only test those in whom He trusts. Hashem will only challenge those who He knows can pass. Just as a great coach will only push his player as far as the coach believes the player can go, so too G-d will only push Avraham as far as He knows Avraham can go.

Sometimes, however, people fail their tests so miserably, that this position becomes difficult to believe. Unfortunately, this week, we bared witness to the most heinous sports scandal of my lifetime. Numerous individuals stood idly by, as a monster used his position of power to rape innocent children. I can not, and do not want to, fathom the disgusting nature of the raper; his evil is far too great for me to even speculate. But, what I can discuss are the "innocent bystanders" who failed their test in such a remarkable way.

Too many people knew what was going on, and did nothing to stop it. The Talmud, in Masechet Brachot, teaches us the the Wicked, in their lifetime, are called dead; the righteous, in their death, are called living. It seems to me that this is not merely a nice saying; it is an accurate portrayal of the nature of evil. The wicked, in their lifetime, do nothing to stop evil from perpetuating--while they are technically alive, they are as good as dead. The righteous leave legacies of decency that inspire generations--while their bodies are dead, it is as if they are still alive.

Avraham Avinu, in inspiring so much good in the world is still alive. Whenever we chant "Od Avinu Chai" our forefather is still alive, we are affirming the good that he has inspired us all to do. May we all be inspired to such greatness; to a level of devotion and to a love of justice that empowers generations. May we see the day that wickedness disappears, and that righteousness prevails. May we learn our lessons, both good and bad, from what comes before us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Russel vs. Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain? There is not doubt that he was great. But, Bill Russel? He's the best that ever was.

In sports, greatness cannot be measured in simple statistics--if that were possible, Chamberlain would easily be the greatest player in NBA history. But, as any sports fan knows, there is so much more. You must consider competition, era, teammates, and, potentially most of all, championships. Chamberlain was incredible for his generation, but Russel's greatness transcends time.

In last weeks parsha, Parshat Noach, Noach was described as אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו, a wholehearted righteous man in his generation. This description seems to suggest that while Noach wasn't necessarily a tzadik by objective standards, compared to dor hamabul (the morally perverted generation destroyed in the flood) he was exemplary. This description stands in stark contrast to Avraham, who first appears in this weeks parsha, Lech Lacha. Avraham seems to be righteous by any standard. He stood on high moral ground, and lived with amazing moral clarity.

While Noach was chosen as a world was erased, Avraham was chosen as a nation was born. Noach was a faithful follower, while Avraham was an empowered leader. Noach listened obediently; Avraham fought courageously. The Zohar points out that Avraham, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, negotiated with G-d in order to prevent the destruction of innocent civilians. Noach, in the famous story of the flood, chose not to plea on the world's behalf, choosing instead to diligently listen to the word of G-d. This is not meant to detract from Noach's greatness--he was certainly still a fine role model. In truth, both he and Avraham represent different paths of leadership--each path necessary in its own time.

RaMBaN (Nachmanodies) famously taught מעשה אבות סימן לבנים the actions of our patriarchs are a siman (sign) to future generations. My teacher, Rabbi Alex Israel, presented three potential paradigms for understanding this word siman: 1) If we want to be honest to what the Ramban initially meant, this comes to teach us "historical determinism." What happened to our patriarchs determines what will happen in the future. While this may be difficult for 21st century minds to relate to, for the mystically inclined RaMBaN it made complete sense. 2) History is bound to repeat itself. While the anecdotes of our patriarchs do not determine our lives, the situations they encounter are inevitably going to arise again. To me, this is a nice middle ground, but such a brilliant innovation. 3) We are meant to see our lives in the stories of our ancestors.

The third paradigm, in many ways, articulates my understanding of Jewish education's objective. Jews often spend hours arguing over who wrote the Torah, and it's historical validity. Does it have many authors, only 4, maybe 2, or was it only Hashem? Did the stories actually happen? Could the world have really been created in 7 days? Is a sea parting really possible?

While these questions are important, and are certainly interesting, at the end of the day the answer doesn't need to matter. One doesn't need to feel disenfranchised simply because they can't believe in the historical validity of these claims. While I am not suggesting that these stories didn't happen, I am arguing that even if they didn't, that doesn't need to change our connection to this wonderfully rich faith.

Whether or not a flood took place and a man named Noach built a big ship and was the only human survivor is not the ikar (essence) of the story. If a man named Avram was ever thrown into a fiery furnace, left Terach's home to go to an area that is modern day Israel, eventually had his name changed to Avraham and we are all his direct descendants simply is not the foundation of our peoplehood. The foundation of our peoplehood is that we tirelessly seeking to have their lessons of hospitality (hachnasat orchim), faith in G-d (yirah), and courage, constantly infuse our very beings.

From Noach we learn to obey; from Avraham we learn to lead. When we can hear both of these messages simultaneously whispered into our two ears we will find ourselves growing tremendously. Let us always remember that our heritage is rooted in shared values, and our stories succeed most strongly when we allow these stories to articulate those ideals.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

זמן שמחתנו The Time of our Joy

Here are some thoughts I shared with Shechter Westchester students about todays events:

Gilad Shalit….Gilad Ben Aviva Shalit.

For too long this simple name has been in the prayers of Jews throughout the world, as we have waited and wondered about this young man’s future. When will Gilad come home? When will he be free? When will he have the chance to hug his parents, to see his friends, to live his life?

Last Tuesday, when news broke that Gilad was finally on his way home, my friends and I immediately jumped on Egged bus 71; we went down Derekh Hevron, across Gan Ha’pa’amon, and up Keren Hayesod. As the bus approached the Fuchsberg center, we quickly jumped off and ran down the street to the tent that Gilad’s family had set up. We expected that this tent—which for 5 years had been a solemn symbol of our yearning for his return—would have transformed into a party, a yom ha’atzmaut take-2.

Instead, we found quiet, scared parents gathered all around. While there was definitely a real excitement, there was also a genuine fear—tekhef tireh—we’ll believe it when it actually happens.

This morning, at about 8 am, I stood waiting for that same Egged bus. Except this time, the sign that read “Mikhakim lecha babayit (we’re waiting for you at home)” was replaced by one declaring “Kamah tov she batah habaitah (how good it is that you’ve come home).” As we got on the bus the radio was blasting, and everyone was crammed towards the front trying to listen to Gilad’s first interview. “Beynenu chozer, beynenu chozer (our son is returning, our son is returning) an old lady cries.

As I get off the bus, and return to that same tent, the trepidation has completely disappeared, and has been replaced with a contagious jubilation. Beynenu chozer, our son has come home.

Still, there are genuine fears. 1,027 freed prisoners is a large price to pay. It hurts the families of those killed by these very individuals. It incites a great fear that they may return to their terrorist tendencies. Will these terrorists continue to kill? What will come next? Has this given incentive to Hamas to keep stealing our soldiers? The fear is real, justified, and pervasive. But, it is also on hold.

For now, all fear is momentarily shelved away, as we come together to declare “am Yisrael chai.” Today Israel is not worried about consequences or potential fallout. Today, Israel can stand proud. It really is a miracle, and I am humbled to have been given the chance to experience it.

So, as I left the tent, on my way to Ben Yehudah street for some lunch, a man, a stranger, an average Israeli, turned to me and said in a deep accent, “be’emet, today, we can say ve’samachta be’chagecha.” Let us celebrate zman simchateynu (the time of our joy), and continue to greet everyone with a moadim lesimcha (time for joy). Today, in this country, in our country, you can see and feel the meaning of Jewish pride.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Two Sounds in One Ear

וברכה שלום ,

Throughout my year in Israel, I will use this blog to share what I study in the classroom, and to describe what I observe on the streets; I will discuss not only the Torah that I learn, but also the Torah that I live. I hope that in sharing some moments in my life when I am able to appreciate the profoundly nuanced convergence of these two elements, we may all recognize a new holiness in our lives. While for now I will share some humble thoughts regarding the holiday season, eventually, beezrat hashem, I will regularly share my thoughts on the weekly parsha:

When I came home from class the other day, I, intending to begin writing this post, opened up all the essentials (chumash, siddur, mahzor, laptop and Sports Illustrated). Within moments, I was interrupted by the all too recognizable sound of a siren outside my kitchen window. As I jumped to my feet to see what was going on, I quickly realized that this siren, fortunately, was not one of alarm, nor one of regret; rather, this siren was one of joy and jubilation. It was sounded to alert the locals of a new tenant—a Sefer Torah was moving to town. The Sephardic shul up the street from my apartment was having a Hachnasat Torah (welcoming of a new Torah). My initial fears instantly dissolved, and in their place emerged an unparalleled bliss. Instinctively, I ran down to the street and joined in on the singing and dancing. It was an amazingly beautiful moment that can only happen in the middle of Yerushalayim.

Still, as I reflect back on that memory, it strikes me how a single noise could denote such different situations; one similar sound can signify two eerily distinct realities.

As I stood and listened to the chazzan’s repetition of the Mussaf Amidah this past Rosh Hashannah, I was overcome by a similar emotion. As the Makri softly called out Tekia, the room was promptly filled with the distinct sound of a Shofar. I closed my eyes and listened closely, hoping to hear the message of this sacred horn. I stood still, hoping to feel the plea of this celebrated sound.

To me, and to many of the mephorshim (commentators) that I studied in my Siddur class, the Shofar seems to have a double meaning. It is, in part, our alarm clock—waking us up to repentance and atonement. Simultaneously, it is our megaphone, proudly proclaiming Hashem as our one G-d. It is, in essence, our siren; it provokes a fear and humility, while also instilling a sense of pride and triumph. What makes the Shofar so unique, however, is that while the siren on the street seems merely to signify one emotion at a time, the blast of the Shofar forces us to experience both moments at once.

On this day, we are taught to recognize הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים (Today, all the world’s creations stand in judgment), at the same time as we proclaim לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוֹצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית עָלֵינוּ (it is our duty to give greatness to the Author of creation). On Rosh Hashannah we must live both (the Day of Judgement)יום הדין and טוב יום (litt. A good day). The goal of the Shofar on Rosh Hashannah is for us to understand and appreciate both of these definitions of human existence.

This expectation seems quite difficult, if not impossible. How does a defendant, who is pleading his case and anxiously awaiting his judgement, simultaneously inaugurate and celebrate the king? The two seems to contradict.

This morning, while speaking about Teshuva one of my teacher offered a beautiful resolution. She cited a line from Nusach Sphard (Sephard high holiday davening): עין במר בוכה ולב שמח (an eye filled with painful tears, but a happy heart). We are taught that often our most important decisions are also the most painful. The two opposing emotions appear as one.

On Rosh Hashannah we train ourselves to hear two sounds in one ear. We allow two emotions to permeate our lonely heart. We expect two ideas to coexist in our single brain. While Rosh Hashannah has already come and gone, the 10 Days of Awe affords us an opportunity to continue this challenge. By manifesting our tfilot, by living the sound of the Shofar, and by walking in the steps of our heritage, we find that we truly can hear both of these cries. Through acts of תשובה, תפילה, וצדקה repentance, prayer, and charity (or as the Chabbad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson z’l, taught: returning home (from sin), judging oneself, and giving simply because it is just) we hear both sounds. By bringing ourselves to action we can better ourselves, while increasing G-dliness in the world. I pray that this year we stay open to the possibility of all sirens and of all calls--and with open ears, and aspiring eyes, we can each make our dent in the world.

Gmar chatimah tovah!