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