Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mindfulness - a Goal of Tefilla?

The follow is article on mindfulness that I came across when searching for resources on tefilla.  I think it raises excellent points on raising one's personal awareness and offers some great techniques for developing a greater sense of gratitude, inquiry and life options.  Too often we are stuck in our own cognitive fixedness and I think mindfulness and davening are two fabulous tools to maintain a healthy approach to living.

Mindfulness Practices for Healing Depression
Amita Schmidt LCSW

Healing from depression is a journey that involves using physical, psychological, and spiritual methods.  The physical may involve medications and exercise, the psychological mindfulness and therapy, and the spiritual faith and meditation.  This article offers some tools on healing the psychological and spiritual aspects depression.

In healing my own depression, and in helping others heal from depression as a therapist and spiritual teacher, I have found three particular areas that can help you address the psychological and spiritual components of depression.  These three areas include Awareness, Choices, and True Nature (ACT).  Awareness of your triggers sets the groundwork for disengaging from depression; making new choices furthers this process; and reorienting to true nature begins a new way of life.

Awareness is the first step to unhooking from depression.  You can’t let go of something unless you have an awareness of it to begin with.  Focused awareness is also mindfulness or knowing/paying attention in a non-judgmental way.  Mindfulness can be applied to several aspects of depression.

Awareness of the depressed mind itself.
The first, and most essential practice, is to be aware of the depressed mind itself. Depression is like wearing dark glasses.  During these times, mental noting of the depressed view is invaluable.  Without mindfulness, you will get sucked into the depressed viewpoint, and begin to think it’s who you are or the way the world is. Remind yourself frequently, “this is the depressed mind” or “this is the lens of depression,” and put a moratorium on believing or acting upon any negative thoughts.

Research shows that labeling thoughts can activate the brain’s hippocampus and allow you to be more resilient under stress.  Also, for the moments that you are labeling the depression you are not caught in it. The awareness that witnesses the depression is not part of it, and this reprieve can be the first foothold in disengaging from depression.

Awareness of thoughts that fuel depression.
It’s also useful to bring mindfulness to specific thought patterns that fuel the depressed mind.  A period of depression can begin with a thought as simple as “I made a mistake,” which then turns into” I always make mistakes,” which then turns into “I’m a failure,” which then turns into “I might as well not be alive.”  People without depression can stop with the “I made a mistake” thought and say, “Okay no big deal, start over again, you’re human.”  But for someone with depression, a simple thought like “I made a mistake,” can lead down a rabbit hole of despair.  One error is just one error.  It is not a reason to question your whole existence.  This is generalizing and universalizing. For this reason, it’s important to notice some patterns of thought which fuel depression such as, all-or-nothing thinking, generalizing, universalizing, black and white thinking, doom and gloom scenarios, creating a catastrophe, and obsessive doubt.  When you are caught in depressed thoughts, ask yourself;  “Am I taking one instance and generalizing it into a pattern for the future?  Am I thinking in black-and-white or all-or-nothing terms? Am I using the words “all “or “never?” Am I catastrophizing?  Am I creating a doom and-gloom picture?”  If the answer is “Yes,” then use mindfulness and gently say, “Oh, this is creating a catastrophe,” or “This is generalizing.”  For instance, when one young woman was applying for graduate schools she found herself thinking, “If I can’t get into Harvard or a top notch school, then no one will ever grant me the credibility I deserve, and my life will be a ruined.”  When she labeled this as “all or nothing thinking,” it kept her from being seduced into a depressed mindstate.

Self-hatred is the main fuel for depression, so it’s important to label “self hatred thoughts” when they arise.  Even if you have a running commentary of self-hatred thoughts throughout the day, they don’t have to be believed, and can be left alone. Try bringing a neutral, curious, or even bemused mindfulness to this endless commentary.  In reality there is nothing true about self-hatred.  The mind that criticizes you is the same mind as the one it is criticizing.

Perfectionism is also a fuel for depression.  When you inevitably can’t do things perfectly, then the opposite extreme takes over of hopelessness, shame, and not good enough. Try labeling the habit of “perfectionism” throughout the day.  See if you can let go of this desire to be perfect (or it’s opposite of being a hopeless failure), and just be a garden-variety human being with both mistakes and successes.

Leaving thoughts alone.
Mindfulness practice is not about trying to stop negative thinking.  True mindfulness is about learning to leave your thoughts alone.  Depression will decrease on its own if you don’t cling to your  thoughts. What if you couldn’t believe any of your depressed thoughts?  Healing happens when you stop either pushing away or indulging in your thoughts and you simply let them be.  Sometimes when I am barraged by negative thoughts, especially ones that pick on me, I try and counter them with, “So what? So what if I didn't do things perfectly.  It’s not 9-1-1.”  Notice when you are velcroed to a thought, such as self-hatred or doom and gloom, and practice leaving it alone.

Knowing your depression triggers.
Another area where awareness is important is with your triggers for depression. Are there certain life situations where depression often occurs, such as when you feel tired, overwhelmed, or lonely?  Knowing your depression triggers can help you work with them. For example, if you realize that evenings or being alone aggravates your depression, you can proactively schedule phone calls to friends at that time.  In this regard, it’s good to put a moratorium on any beliefs that occur in the middle of the night (especially those fears that wake you at 3am). My strategy is “hands off” of all depressed or fearful thoughts from midnight until 6am. If those same thoughts are still around in the middle of the next day, then I take a look at them then.

What need is the depression serving?
The final aspect of awareness of depression is to see what need your depression is meeting.  We all have basic needs for safety, security, autonomy, connection, love, belonging, and self-esteem.  Is your depression meeting one of these needs?   Or you might ask, “What is the benefit of my depression?”  If you look below the depression, to what’s deeper, you might find the original reason the depression began.  For instance, my depression started as a way to stay safe.  It was my foxhole to retreat to away from my father’s violence and my mother’s illness.   And paradoxically, below my self-hatred, was a voice of love and concern (fostered by the misguided belief that being hard on myself would help me).  If you trace the origin of your depression back, you might find some kindness or protection at its core. Can you offer appreciation to this protection, and then be willing to meet this need with some other choices besides depression?

Making new choices is the second part of disengaging from depression.  New choices are not positive affirmations.  They are the willingness to move the focus off of depression and onto what else is true.

Choose what is really true.
One of the best choices to make for healing depression is to question negative thoughts. Depression is a form of civil war where the mind turns against itself.  The mind unabashedly lies, deceives and exaggerates in this civil war; therefore, it’s important to have a tool to uncover its deception.   When you have a negative thought, ask yourself, “Is this really true? Is it true 100% of the time?”  If it isn't really true, than why believe it?  For example, is the thought “I’m a failure,” really true?  Has it been true, every moment of your life? Were you a failure when you were sleeping?  Were you a failure when you were drinking a glass of water?  And, if “I’m a failure” is not really true, then why bother with this thought? Inquiry keeps your thinking honest.  Remember negative thoughts have a black and white, always or never quality, and if you question them with loving awareness, they will fall apart.

Choose the present moment.
Negativity, worry, fear, and anxiety can be significantly reduced if you steadfastly focus on the present moment.  Depression gets a lot of mileage from the past or the future. When you feel depressed, notice if you are dwelling in the past, or worried about the future.  One wise friend said to me, “fear needs a future.”  If you are lost in the future (or past) ask yourself, “Am I okay now?” I've never yet found a moment where the answer wasn't “Yes.”  If I have to, I ask myself this question, “Am I okay now?” repeatedly. Do this one moment at a time, or even one-half moment at a time, as needed.

Choose kindness.
Loving-kindness is a form of mindfulness where you chose to talk to yourself like a good friend would talk to you.  Even though your first response in a situation might be your old standby of, “I’m such an idiot,” or “Why did I do that, again!” you can notice this, and make your second response, “Well, that wasn't perfect, but it’s okay,” or “I’m doing the best I can.”  It’s strengthening a friendly way of speaking to yourself with compassion.

Even if you can only offset your drill sergeant voice with compassion once in a while, this will begin to condition a habit of kindness to yourself.

Loving-kindness can also be done as a formal practice.  I do it daily on my commute to work.  I turn off the radio and cell phone and do loving-kindness prayers for others and myself the whole trip.  Some examples of the loving-kindness prayer for yourself:  1) “May I be happy, May I be peaceful, May I  be safe, May I be free of suffering.” and/or 2) “May I love myself completely, just as I am.” A brain research scientist also told me that putting loving-kindness phrases to a melody makes them more effective, so I do this too.

Choose neutral and pleasant moments.
Because depression is often a fairly chronic condition, it can seem like there is nothing else but depression.  The Buddha taught that in each moment there are three feeling states possible; pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. With depression, there is a tendency to be hyper-focused on the unpleasant.  Making new choices is noticing that in a day there are also many moments which are neutral or pleasant.  Neutral moments might be when you put on your shoes, or when you turn the key in your car.  Pleasant moments might be
when you feel the warmth of your shower, when you eat something tasty, or when you lie down at night.  The depressed mind misses these times.  See if you can notice a neutral or pleasant moment today.

If you have a meditation practice, it is important that you learn how not to get engulfed in depressed thoughts during your meditation.  For this reason, it’s important to find a neutral or safe place in your body, and focus on this periodically, or exclusively.  During your meditation session, scan your body.  Is there a place that feels neutral or safe?  Use this as your neutral anchor.  This might be your breath, or the bottoms of your feet, the palms of your hands, the hair on your head, or the center of your body.  Pick one place, and during your sitting, if the feelings of depression begin to increase, switch to this neutral anchor as the object of your awareness. Stay with the anchor as long as you need to. If this doesn't work, it’s okay to stop meditating.  You don’t want to continue meditating if you are conditioning your mind to be more depressed.  This wouldn't be skillful means.

Choose gratitude and service
Daily gratitudes are also a way to work with the depressed mind because you can’t feel both gratitude and depression in the same mind moment.  Try writing down three gratitudes a day. For instance, just for today I noticed gratitude for: the mailman, dental floss, clean air to breathe, and a phone call from a friend.  Your gratitude list can be as endless as there are things happening in a day. I even formed an email gratitude group with a couple of friends and every few days we write our gratitudes to each other.  It’s
very connecting to see what my friends come up with and reminds me of new things to be grateful for every day.

A small act of daily service is also a good antidote for depression. This service can be as simple as telling a friend what you appreciate about them, letting someone get in front of you in line, picking up a piece of trash, or watering a dying plant.  Then, when depression arises in the day, you can reflect on this small act of service and it will bring some buoyancy to your mind.

The last part of disengaging from depression is orienting to your true nature. True nature is also sometimes referred to as original nature, the unborn, the unconditioned, presence, awakeness, higher self, or God-consciousness.  Orienting to true nature can happen through meditation, prayer, silence and other spiritual practices.  Being aware of true nature, on a daily basis through a spiritual practice, is a way to stay spiritually fit.  When you are spiritually fit it becomes harder for depression to take hold.

Although practices that engage true nature aren't a substitute for the actual experience itself, a practice can help you to recognize, remember, and reorient to who you truly are. True nature is something that is already here and is uncovered. The idea is not to try to create a particular experience, but instead to remember what has always been here in you,all along.

Willingness to turn back towards
You might remember that there was a time in your life when you consciously decided to turn away from away from life. Something happened, a trauma, a hurt (perhaps one thing or a series of things) and you stopped trusting in life.  Reorienting to true nature is a willingness to turn back towards who you were, and what you have always been, before you disconnected from life.

As someone with depression, unknowingly you may have developed a habit of orienting to and believing in the depression above everything else.  Are you willing to have faith in something else?  Are you willing to imagine that true nature can help you?  Be willing to ask for help from your true nature or the dharma every day.  This could be in the form of a mantra or a prayer for a few minutes at the beginning of the day or throughout the day. If you are open to discovering whether there is something greater than the depression,
this willingness can show you what is true.

Any basic meditation practice that allows you to sit quietly and listen can lead you to your true nature.  Additionally, I have found the following practices can help access true

Center of the wheel
The center of the wheel is an image that can be useful when there are a lot of thoughts or busyness.  Picture a wheel that is turning quickly. The outside of the wheel (your thoughts and actions) might be spinning very fast, but what is happening at the very center of the wheel?  The axis on which a wheel turns is completely still and stopped. This stillness is always here.  Where is your “center of the wheel” in your body right now?  Can you feel it?  Oftentimes people notice it in their belly or solar plexus area.  It’s a quiet feeling, at the center of your body.  It is a stopped feeling.  There is something in you that is stopped and still no matter what you are doing.  Can you have a sense of this?

Inquiry into true nature
Inquiry is also a useful practice for uncovering true nature. With the questions below, you are not trying to find a specific answer with your mind.  Instead, the questions are meant to create a sort of free fall into “I don’t know.”  From there you can then listen and feel the answer from your body, neck-down. You can pick a question and use it on a daily or weekly basis, reflecting and feeling what is true at deeper levels.

     1) “What can I trust?” What can you trust no matter what?  If everything were to fall apart in the world and your life, what could you ultimately trust?  Feel this answer in your body.
     2) What is it that doesn’t come and go?   Thoughts, feelings, experiences all come and go, arise and pass away.  What is it that doesn’t come and go?  From what do all feelings and thoughts arise out of and pass away into? Can you sense what this is?
    3) What is looking out of my eyes right now? What is the looking itself, that is independent of your personal story?  Everyone has this same thing looking out of his or her eyes right now. Feel what this is.
    4) Who am I, really?  What is deeper than who you think you are?  Who are you that isn’t about your gender, your roles in life, your age, your emotions, or your views and opinions? Who are you without any of this? What is beyond all the stories of “you?”

Where is it now?
Once you have a sense of how true nature can feel and where to find it in your body, it can be helpful to check in with it everyday to strengthen your experience of it.  Even if your experience is indistinct, it can still be helpful to practice noticing true nature. Sometimes I say to myself throughout the day “Where is it now?”  Zen master Bankei said, “Unborn Buddha nature is always happening.”  Look and see for yourself.  True nature is always here, while you are driving, standing, talking, or moving about.  Yes,
depressed thoughts and bodily sensations might be here, but what else is happening?   It doesn’t take 45 minutes of sitting daily to contact your true nature. You can feel it right here, right now. As another way of strengthening a connection to true nature, I try to bookend my day (the very first thing in the morning and the last thing at night) by meditating with the feeling of the center of the wheel or “what doesn’t come or go.” I rest in this stillness for a few minutes in the morning and the evening. I find having this daily bookend is better than starting or ending the day with depression thoughts. Eventually this focus on true nature leaves less and less room for depression to arise.

If you don’t understand true nature yet, don’t worry.  Try to use the practices of awareness, mindfulness and new choices.  Pay attention to your physical, psychological and spiritual well-being.  Eventually your sincere efforts will lead to a new relationship with depression, and a new way of life.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Rabbi Akiva's Davening Style

When he was with the congregation, he would pray quickly so as not to be a burden on those praying with him (who would respectfully wait for him to finish). But when he prayed alone, one could leave him in one corner and afterwards find him in another corner, due to his many bows and prostrations. (Talmud Berachot 31a)
How do you make your davening more than a performance?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Is Davening for Us or for God?

The follow is an article published in Kol Hamevaser, The Jewish Thought Magazine of YU's Student Body.  

Worship: For Us or for Him?
By Yakov Danishefsky | Published: December 26, 2012  

On one level, believing Jews must live in accordance with the divine will just because it is the divine will. We accept our role as servants of the King, each one of us obeying His laws as “metsuveh ve-oseh,”“commanded and performing.”[i] This is the level of “na’aseh,”“we will do.”[ii] There is, however, another level, that of “nishma,”“we will listen,”[iii] understand, and become engaged. It is from the point of nishma that we depart into the following discussion of understanding the role of our avodat Hashem.[iv],[v],[vi]

Radically different forms of worship emerge from the proponents of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism, respectively. To be sure, these two groups have many diverging opinions within each of their general doctrines. What follows is not a comprehensive analysis of all approaches, but an outline of key approaches, to serve as a springboard for further study. I hope that this simplified presentation does not blemish the truth and depth of this lofty topic.

A hallmark of a sincere oved(et) Hashem (servant of God) is a determination to constantly increase the meaning and vibrancy of his or her service of God. It is therefore worthwhile for such an individual to explore different perspectives of avodat Hashem developed by the hakhmei ha-mesorah (sages of the tradition). By exploring different forms of worship, an individual is better positioned to identify the form that energizes and empowers him or her to better serve God. We will begin by looking at sources portraying a man-centered view, then move to those who adopt a God-centered perspective, and lastly, we will explore two forms of synthesis found in later sources.

For Us
One perspective maintains that worship of God is primarily “for us,” namely the worshipers, not for God. This approach is clear in the well-known mishnah at the end of Makkot: “R. Hananya ben Akashya says, ‘[God] wanted to give Israel merit, therefore, He gave them much Torah and mitsvot.’”[vii] This view is also found in a passage from Midrash Rabbah that asks the rhetorical question, “Does God care if man slaughters an animal in the front of the neck or in the back?” The Midrash seems to accept the premise of this question, namely, that God does not care, and therefore offers the explanation that it matters not for God but for man: “The mitsvot were given [by God] only to enfranchise (le-tsaref) the creations.”[viii] Lastly, the Gemara records the following statement of R. Sheshet: “Does God need [the Temple menorah’s] light? For all forty years that Benei Yisrael traveled in the desert, they followed His light![ix] Rather, [the menorah] is testimony to all the people of the world that God’s presence dwells with the Jewish people.”[x]

The chief medieval proponent of divine worship for man’s sake is Rambam. For example, he understands that the prohibition against harlotry is intended to ensure that all people belong to a family, since children of harlotry are considered strangers to everyone. An additional reason for the prohibition is in order to limit the lusts and desires of men, and to reduce strife between men for one woman.[xi] Both these reasons focus upon man himself, not God. Similarly, Rambam suggests that the commandment of berit milah (circumcision) is intended to limit the physical pleasure of intercourse and counteract excessive lust.[xii] In another context he explains that the reason for burning ketoret, or incense, in the Temple was to remove the odor of the slaughtered animals and preserve people’s respect for the Temple.[xiii]Lastly, his proposed reason for the prohibition against eating pig is that it is a dirty and unhealthy animal.[xiv]  Rambam believes that mitsvot are focused on their impact on man, meant to perfect the human intellect and enhance one’s character traits. As he wrote in Moreh Nevukhim, “all the commandments and exhortations in the Pentateuch aim at controlling the physical impulses.”[xv] And in Iggeret Teiman (“Epistle to Yemen”), he wrote, “The true divine religion does not have a single positive or negative precept whose essence does not contain aspects that aid the human being in his striving for perfection.”[xvi]

While Ramban fiercely rejects many of Rambam’s utilitarian and contextualized reasons for mitsvot, he too promotes a man-focused purpose ofavodat Hashem. In his commentary to the mitsvah of shiluah ha-ken (sending away the mother bird),[xvii] Ramban writes that the reason for the mitsvah is for man to develop a more merciful nature. He then expands his discussion to all mitsvot and asserts that “the purpose of mitsvot is not for [God Himself]. Rather, the purpose is for man himself to avoid harm, evil beliefs, or disgraceful qualities, or to remember the miracles and wonders of the blessed Creator and to know the Name … all [the mitsvot] are for our sake alone… and this is something agreed upon by all the sayings of our Rabbis.” He explains that the midrash quoted above suggests that God gave the mitsvot only for the sake of developing and molding man. The word “tsiruf”(literally “formation”) is used here in the same way regarding man as it is with regards to making a coin. Ramban’s opinion is actually more complicated, though, as will be noted below.

Ritva, in his commentary to Masekhet Kiddushin seems to invoke a man-centered view in his explanation of the principle that “greater is the one who is commanded and performs than the one who is not commanded and performs.”[xviii] Ritva writes, “The mitsvot are not for God’s pleasure but rather for our own merit.”[xix]  Interestingly, Ritva states this explanation in the name of Rabbeinu ha-Gadol, which usually refers to Ramban. Considering the other statements of Ramban quoted in this article, this source becomes even more noteworthy.

Lastly, the Sefer ha-Hinnukh in his Shorashei ha-Mitsvot (“Roots of the Mitsvot”) often explains the mitsvot as they pertain to the betterment of man. To cite a few examples, he explains that the mitsvah of sanctifying firstborns (“kiddush bekhorot”) is meant to remind man that everything is God’s and that man has nothing in this world other than that which God provides.[xx]He further suggests that the purpose of the mitsvot surrounding the korban Pesah is to remember the great miracles that God performed for the Jewish people in order to take them out of Egypt.[xxi] Finally, the goal of the mitsvah to sanctify Shabbat with words (“kiddush Shabbat be-devarim”) is to remember the greatness of the day and to instill faith in our hearts that God created the world.[xxii]

For Him
In stark contrast to the ideas presented above, Zohar states very clearly that divine worship in this world is intended to create unifications of the sefirot (divine attributes): “And for all of [the mitsvot], we need to perform the action below in order to arouse above.”[xxiii] Similarly, Moses is praised by Elijah because, “in every single commandment, your effort was to unite the blessed holy One and His shekhinah.”[xxiv] In contrast, man’s negative actions cause negative effects in the upper realm: “[Sins] separate the Queen from the King, and King from the Queen. Thus He is not called One, for He is only called One when they are together in union. Woe to those sinners who cause separation above.”[xxv] In a particularly strong explication of this view, Zohar interprets the verse, “Tenu oz le-Elokim,” “Give strength to God,”[xxvi] in the most literal sense: “When the Jewish People does improper deeds, ki-ve-yakhol (as if this could be) they weaken the strength of God, and when they do good deeds they give strength and power to God, and this is what the verse says, ‘Give strength to God.’ With what? With good deeds.”[xxvii]

Ba’al ha-Tanya advocates this position when he states that the greatest worship is“not only in order to cleave to Him, blessed is He, to quench the thirst of the soul thirsty for God… but rather, as is explained in Tikkunei Zohar… to unite [God]and His Shekhinah.”[xxviii] He further argues in favor of such an approach in his Sha’ar ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah, “It is known to all that the purpose of creation is in order to reveal [God’s] kingship, for there is no king without a nation.”[xxix]

However, it is necessary to offer a minor caveat within this view. It must be made very clear that a distinction exists within the world of mysticism between God’s essence and the manifest aspect of God.[xxx] Any discussion predicated on man’s actions affecting God refers only to the manifest aspect of God; God’s essence cannot be affected by man. Even this duality, however, is more complex and is considered beyond human comprehension.[xxxi]

The Nefesh ha-Hayyim seems to take this position as well. He writes, “The foundation of our holy faith is that our entire intention in all our blessings, prayers, and requests is only the One of the world, the single Master and endless One, blessed is He.” But he then makes a crucially important point: 
However, we are not talking about the essence of God on the level that He is completely expanded and separate from the worlds … It is only that after He showed us that His will is to connect to and be King over the worlds that our request is that He be King over the worlds. Furthermore, on the level of His essence, without connecting to the worlds, there is no space for Torah and mitsvot at all … because all the deeds of man, be them good or bad, do not affect this sense at all, God forbid. [xxxii]

Although Ramban, as quoted above, clearly adopts a man-focused view of mitsvot, he elsewhere hints to a different perspective. Shemot 29:46 states, “They shall know that I am Hashem, their God, Who took them out of the land of Egypt to rest My presence among them (le-shakhni be-tokham). I am Hashem, their God.” The commentators to this verse debate how to understand the lamed prefix of the word “le-shakhni.”Ramban rejects a number of explanations and endorses the view of Ibn Ezra: The lamed means “for the sake of.”[xxxiii] Thus, Ramban argues, the Torah indicates that God took us out of Egypt in order that He dwell among us. Ramban then comments that “[Ibn Ezra] explained well, and, if so, there is a great secret in the matter. For according to the simple understanding of this verse, God’s dwelling in Israel is for human sake and not for divine sake, but [this verse] is similar to “Through you, Israel, God is glorified.” [xxxiv] The verse thus says that God took Benei Yisrael out of Egypt in order that He dwell among them, the emphasis being not on their gain, but rather on His. Admittedly this is not explicit in the verse, even according to Ibn Ezra’s reading, but it is nonetheless alluded to as a “great secret.”

This approach can also be found in later Hasidic sources. For example, R. Levi Yitshak of Berditchev wrote in his commentary on the Torah: “God, blessed is He, created the world in order that He have pleasure … This pleasure comes from this-worldly things, from men.” [xxxv]

For Us and For Him
While I have outlined two conflicting approaches above, one need not consider these viewpoints as mutually exclusive, especially not from a mystical perspective. Although many philosophical authorities reject certain mystical doctrines, and some mekubbalim dismiss philosophical positions,[xxxvi] there are those that advocate for some form of synthesis. What follow are two different forms of synthesis. The first reconciles the different views by creating a two-tier structure. The second offers a blend of the seemingly different views and shows that they are, in fact, one.

R. Shlomo Elyashiv, the great Torah scholar and kabbalist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in his magnum opus, Leshem Shevo ve-Ahlamah, claims that Rambam’s view is entirely correct with regards to understanding God as transcendent, while the mystical doctrine of the mekubbalim speaks within the other, manifest, aspect of God.[xxxvii],[xxxviii] In this way, he maintains the seemingly exclusive opinions by allowing them to function on different levels.

Ramban, as well, views these two approaches as not mutually exclusive. As noted above, Ramban clearly states that the purpose of mitsvot is for man and not for God, yet elsewhere he presents a God-focused view as his “great secret.” While his opinion requires further investigation and analysis, it is likely that Ramban operates on multiple levels. On the peshat (simple reading) level, he considers the mitsvot to be for man’s sake, but, on the deeper “sod” level, avodat Hashem is for God. The two views are entirely different, but Ramban seems to comfortably adopt a multilayered worldview. Although it is purely speculative, it is possible to suggest that these layers of Ramban are similar to the claim of the Leshem.

A second form of synthesis is a profound idea found in the writings of R. Abraham Isaac Kook. Binyamin Ish Shalom of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem presents R. Kook’s discussion of the struggle between freedom of the self and subjugation to the Divine.[xxxix] Ish Shalom shows how R. Kook often stresses his loyalty to the importance of human will and the human self, yet other times speaks of complete subjugation to the Divine. He further argues that the complete picture of R. Kook’s view not only contains no contradictions but actually reflects a stunning attempt at synthesis. Freedom, writes R. Kook, is for one “to be true to his inner self, to the spiritual quality of God’s image within him, and in such a quality he can consider his life as worthy and purposeful.”[xl] Elsewhere, he explains further that “man is destined to rise to recognition of his will, to self-consciousness, to the highest perception of happiness in doing his own will as the will of his Maker, for his will is none other than his Maker’s will” [italics in the original].[xli] He explains that the human will is “a single spark of the blazing flame of the great Will in all of being, the manifestation of the will of the Master of the World, blessed be He.”[xlii] In this way, R. Kook explains that when a person develops his own self (within the guidelines of Torah and Halakhah), the divine will that is expressed within man is further developed. And when one subjugates himself to the divine will he truly finds the deepest level of his own will. This unique perspective sheds light on our discussion as well. We can propose that acting “for us” is acting “for Him,” and acting “for Him” is acting “for us.” As the Mishnah states, “make His will your will in order that your will become His will.”[xliii]

It is often difficult to maintain a constant excitement and vibrancy within one’s avodat Hashem amidst the repetition of daily routine. Thankfully, and not by chance, Judaism contains a variety of different outlooks. At times the “for us” type of worship will take the stage and, at other times, the “for Him” may be featured. For every person this combination will form itself differently and it is our challenge to each find our own synthesis of views. By developing both deeper understandings and appreciation of a wider scope of opinions a person can attempt to have a constant flow of substance and stimulation giving life to his or her avodat Hashem.

Yakov Danishefsky is a senior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies.

[i] See Kiddushin 31a.
[ii] Shemot 24:7.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] It is important to remember that Benei Yisrael were praised specifically for putting “na’aseh,” we will do, before “nishma,” we will listen (Shabbat88a), ostensibly implying that commitment to avodat Hashem exists on its own, with or without understanding. Divine service is enhanced by understanding but not hinged entirely on it.
[v] This is in addition to the inherent value of knowing and understanding these issues as a fulfillment of the mitsvah to study and understand the Torah.
[vi] Not all halakhic authorities agree to the project of rationalizing themitsvot. For example, R. Jacob ben Asher states in Tur, Yoreh De’ah 181 that “we do not need to search for the reasons of mitsvot because they are commandments of the King upon us even if we do not know their reason.” Many authorities, such as Rambam and Sefer ha-Hinnukh, however, seemed to invest a great deal of time into understanding the mitsvot. This question is ostensibly connected to the debate in Sanhedrin 21a as to whether or not“doreshin ta’ama de-kera,” “we extrapolate the reasons of verses.”  
[vii] Makkot 3:16. All translations are my own unless otherwise stated.
[viii] Bereshit Rabbah 44:1. A very similar statement appears in Midrash Tanhuma, Shemini, chapter 8.
[ix] This translation follows Tosafot’s understanding of this passage. Tosafot record another view, however, that the question is not referring to God but rather to the kohanim performing the avodah in the Temple. In other words, the Gemara is asking, “Did Aharon really need the light of the menorah for his service? The shekhinah itself provided light for all forty years in the desert!”
[x] Shabbat 22b.
[xi] Moreh Nevukhim  3:49.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid 3:45.
[xiv] Ibid. 3:48.
[xv] Ibid 3:8.
[xvi] Rambam in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:2) defines serving God out of love as “doing the truth because it is truth.” A similar expression appears in his Peirush ha-Mishnayot (Sanhedrin 10:1). This does not seem to be the model we are presenting for Rambam here (nor does it fit exactly with the “for Him” model). Rather, this seems to be a third view that advocates doing the mitsvot because they are true. Ostensibly the assumption is that truth is intrinsically valuable; see Michael J. Zimmerman, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Edward N. Zalta (Online: Winter 2012 Edition), available at: plato.stanford.edu.
[xvii] See Devarim 22:6-7 and commentary of Ramban, ad loc.
[xviii] Kiddushin 31a.
[xix] Ritva to Kiddushin 31a, s.v. de-amar. It is unclear how to understand what exactly “for our merit” (“li-zekhuteinu”) means. It could mean that man merits reward in this world and/or in the next world, or it could mean something along the lines of Ramban above, namely, that man benefits by developing better character and faith in God.
[xx] Sefer ha-Hinnukh 18.
[xxi] Ibid. 5.
[xxii] Ibid. 31.
[xxiii] Zohar 3:105a.
[xxiv] Zohar 2:119a.
[xxv] Zohar 3:16b.The King and Queen refer to different sefirot.
[xxvi] Tehillim 65:35.
[xxvii] Zohar 2:32b.
[xxviii] Tanya, Likutei Amarim, 10.
[xxix] Tanya, Sha’ar ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah, 7.
[xxx] This is more or less stated in Tikkunei Zohar 70 and explicated in theAsarah Kelalim of the Gra: “A great principle in Torah is that all that themekubbalim (kabbalists) have said and all that the Torah says is God’s will, providence, and actions and they did not speak, [God forbid], about His physical essence at all.” (Kelal 1).
[xxxi] R.A.I. Kook explains this concept in a fascinating and insightful way: “Thus one discerns within the absolute perfection of Divinity two paradoxical features. The first is that God is absolutely perfect. It is impossible for there to exist, whether in this reality or in imagination, a perfection greater than His. This aspect of Divine perfection cannot become more perfect for there is nothing beyond it; there are no further levels to attain. And yet, this excellence conceals a deficiency that mars the very perfection that it purports. Perfection that lacks the possibility of becoming even more perfect is no longer completely flawless, for it is missing something. It is perfection minus one small detail, the experience of dynamic perfecting. Consequently, Divinity must also possess this latter capability. This second feature, the possibility of positive transformation, when applied to human beings, has certain fulfillments and gratifications and even superiority over its more distinguished counterpart, the supreme (though static) expression of absolute perfection. There is a particular type of exquisite joy that comes from self-improvement, and every soul longs for its sweetness. The exhilaration of personal transformation, of ‘ascending from strength to strength,’ must also be a divine satisfaction. It is impossible for the Creator to lack this virtue.” (Orot ha-Kodesh 2; transl. by Sarah Yehudit Schneider in Sarah Schneider, You Are What You Hate: A Spiritually Productive Approach to Enemies (Jerusalem: Still Small Voice, 2009).)
[xxxii] Sefer Nefesh ha-Hayyim 2:4. The Tanya also addresses these two levels. He speaks about God as the “mesavev kol almin” – “the One Who surrounds all worlds.” He surrounds all worlds, He is removed from them, and “everything is before Him as nothing.” And He is the “memale kol almin” – “the One Who fills all worlds,” and thereby He manifests in this world. SeeTanya 3-4.
[xxxiii] Ramban to Shemot 29:46. s.v. le-shakhni.
[xxxiv] Yish’ayahu 49:3.
[xxxv] Kedushat Levi to Bereshit 2:6, s.v. ve-eid.
[xxxvi] See Daniel C. Matt, “The Mystic and the Mizwot” in Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, vol. 1, ed. by Arthur Green (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 367-404.
[xxxvii] This is not to say that Rambam himself would agree to that claim. Many philosophers reject mystical doctrines, but many mystics accept aspects of philosophical perspectives and add to them.
[xxxviii] This idea surfaces in a number of his writings. One explication of it appears in Likutim at the end of Hakdamot u-She’arim.
[xxxix] Binyamin Ish Shalom, Rav Avraham Itzhak Hacohen Kook: Between Rationalism and Mysticism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993), 108-113.
[xl] Ish-Shalom, 101.
[xli] Ish-Shalom, 111.
[xlii] Ish-Shalom, 111.
[xliii] Avot 2:4.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Guest Post: The Almost Missed Chance to Daven

The following is a true story; experienced and told below by Eli Bialik.  It is so good and pure that I feel the need to share it. I also feel need to share it because for those that pray everyday and feel a personal sense of obligation to daven, the threat of missing the daily ritual of tefilla can be a traumatic and almost paralyzing feeling.  It isn't something you just skip and make up another time - it is a mitzvah.  To understand that a mtizvah is more than an action, but rather has an emotional and spiritual component to it, you will see in Eli's investment in the experience of davening with his talit and tefillin in an airport.

This week I was on my way back from Vancouver, I had a stopover in Toronto for an hour and a half before heading out to Newark for my flight home. By accident, I had packed my tefilin in my checked bag, and low and behold, it was time to daven shacharit. I was stuck. I didn't see a Jew in sight and had no idea how I was going to daven without my tallit and tefilin.

I walked pass all of the departure gates at Toronto Airport looking for a religious looking Yid to ask if I could borrow talit and tefilin. Nothing, not a kippa in sight.I opened my laptop and started to answer some emails and said “gosh darnit, its time to daven!” and closed my laptop for one more scan of the departure gates for a pair of tefilin.

Maybe 5 or 6 gates away from me was a chasid who was talking with an airline rep and I waited patiently on the side until he finished his business. Once he finished talking, I walked up to him and asked him: “Excuse me, are you in a rush?”

The chasid replied “Why do you ask?”

I told the chasid that I packed my talit & tefilin in my checked bag and would be very grateful if I could borrow his to daven with.

He looked me over, up and down and said “I’m not in a rush anymore, I just missed my flight, and it must be for you.”

He looked me over again from head to toe (as if in wonder that this conversation was actually transpiring) . “It’s my zchut to be mishtatef in this mitzvah! My next flight is 4:30 pm, so I have plenty of time.”

Of course, I was very moved by the words of the chassid and how he saw the Yad Hashem in the fact that he just missed his flight – apparently for me.

I went to the side of a phonebooth and davened with great kavanah. I had a great davening. I was so happy that I was able to daven with talit and tefilin and that I absolutely made the day of this kind stranger.

Now hold on to your hats, men and women…

As soon as I finished davening and had wrapped up the tefilin and folded the talit, the airline rep came running over to the chassid and told him that there had been a cancellation on another flight and that if he hurried he could be on a plane to his destination (Cleveland) in 10-15 minutes.

This guy’s jaw dropped. He couldn't stop looking at me.

The less said the better, because this was a truly one in a lifetime experience where 2 people who had never met, and probably never would think they have much in common, came together, “by chance”, for half an hour to do a mitzvah. I was smiling all the way home to Israel. Pretty awesome.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Prayers for the President

Yesterday, Rabbi Sharon Brous delivered a blessing at the 57th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service in Washington, DC.  A rabbis' presence at a multicultural (interfaith) service does not always go without controversy, especially when its held in a church. (It could be considered a similar situation to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attendance to the Royal Wedding in 2011).  But one thing is for sure, such an event does call for prayer and blessings - as it is truly an amazing part of living in a democratically free country.

Here is the text she shared (and a video):

Elohei ha-ahavah, God of Love. Help us widen the boundaries of our hearts. You know us better than we know ourselves: the distinctions we make, the biases we hold, the ways in which we fail to manifest our greatest potential as we diminish ourselves and others with our impatience, lack of compassion and vision, lack of hope. Give depth to our faith; let our actions bear witness to the expansiveness of your mercy. Grant us the grace to love our neighbors and to love ourselves. We pray that you bring your presence among us, as light, as life and as holy inspiration.

I am always amazed at the creative abilities of those who compose prayers as I am a davener that is much more comfortable in a well worn siddur.  Also, I feel that spiritual meaning is naturally in Hebrew and thus personally feel disconnected by the English liturgy in prayers (I recognize that this is my personal stance).

One final comment - I think that the blessing shared above, although targeted to the Creator, captures the sentiment of the blessing codified by the Shulchan Orach to be recited upon seeing a non-Jewish king which may be appropriate to say upon seeing the newly inaugurated President:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם שחלק מכבודו לבשר ודם 
Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has given from His glory to (humans of) flesh and blood.

Monday, January 21, 2013

57th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service Tomorrow

Heads up:  The Washington National Cathedral has announced the participants in the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service scheduled for Tuesday, January 22, at 10:30 am. The interfaith service, including voices of faith from several Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, will bring Americans together to pray for the nation and for the second term of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. The service, which is for invited guests, will also be webcast live at www.nationalcathedral.org.

I will be watching via webcast and hope to share some reflections.  

MLK and Prayer

Today is a US federal holiday in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - a man known as much for his oratory skills as his prayer prowess.

Prayer was a wellspring of strength and inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the movement, we prayed for greater human understanding. We prayed for the safety of our compatriots in the freedom struggle. We prayed for victory in our nonviolent protests, for brotherhood and sisterhood among people of all races, for reconciliation and the fulfillment of the Beloved Community. 
For my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. prayer was a daily source of courage and strength that gave him the ability to carry on in even the darkest hours of our struggle. 
I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of that night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough.  
After the call, he got up from bed and made himself some coffee. He began to worry about his family, and all of the burdens that came with our movement weighed heavily on his soul. With his head in his hands, Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: "Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can't face it alone. 
Later he told me, "At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: 'Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.'" When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything. 
--Coretta Scott King from "Standing in the Need of Prayer" as published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Shaking Up Your School's Tefilla Options

The following is a school letter -shared by a loyal Davenspot reader - that was sent to parents at SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY.  I have heard some buzz from some parents who were pleasantly surprised by the school's attempt to shake up the davening status-quo and others who were angry at the disruption to the traditional framework of tefilla.  This is quite a bold step, especially for an Orthodox day school, and think this educational approach should be further studied and discussed; I will let you be the judge. 

Dear Parents,
I would like to inform you of an important initiative we are about to embark upon regarding tefillah. As you know, this year our school wide theme is dveykut, God awareness. Through curricular programming in beit midrash groups and co-curricular programming such as color war we have been exploring ways of deepening our connection to God. Our daily tefillah presents an important opportunity to work on and strengthen this relationship.

Daily tefillah can be a challenging experience in Modern Orthodox schools. Meaningful tefillah takes great effort and concentration, and students come to tefillah with various levels of readiness to engage. We believe it is essential to immerse our students in a routine of tefillah. Each day, we set aside time to daven as Jews have for centuries. On our best days, our tefillah is inspired and meaningful; on other days, it is more rote. And at times there is a need to break from the routine in order to enrich, reflect upon and more fully appreciate the power of prayer. In that spirit and as part of our year-long theme, davening at SAR High School will look different during the week of January 7th.

During that week, we will be offering over twenty different tefillah options to our students. The options range from discussions of why we pray, to musical tefillah, to artistic expression to meditation. The goal of the experimental tefillah week is to provide students with different avenues to connect to tefillah and to encourage us to be inspirational in our relationship with God. After the experimental tefillah week students will have the opportunity to reflect upon their experience. We envision continuing some of the tefillah groups a few days a week throughout the year, and bringing aspects of others to enrich our regular minyanim.

Some practical information: Yesterday, students were presented with the list of tefillah options and asked to choose a few in which they are interested. Students will attend the same tefillah all week in order to ensure the richness of the experience. Some tefillah groups will daven the full tefillah and add elements, such as music or explanation. Some tefillah groups will daven an abridged פסוקי דזמרה in order to allow time for other experiences. On Monday and Thursday all students will hear קריאת התורה. As part of the women’s tefillah option, girls will have the opportunity to read from the Torah.

I would like to thank our remarkable faculty for the time and effort they have invested in creating these opportunities for our community. We could not embark upon this initiative without their tremendous dedication, actively engaging in opening up meaningful religious opportunities for our students.
We are excited about the opportunities for spiritual growth that this week will offer us on both a personal and communal level. We look forward to sharing our reflections with you.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark
Principal, SAR High School


1. Explanatory Tefilah
Is Tefilah a struggle for you? Do you find yourself daydreaming during a long Pesukei D’Zimra? Do you feel alienated from most prayers? We hope to explore, think about, and begin to understand what it is we are really doing during tefilah and how each prayer leads into the next, creating a beautiful tapestry. We will focus on a shorter, but more meaningful tefilah experience, culminating in a unique Hitbodidut (solitary) engagement with Tefilah and God.

2. מעט בכוונה
Today's fast-paced world makes it difficult to pray with concentration and serenity. For many, the weekday Shacharit has unfortunately become about getting through all the words as quickly as possible. Theמעט בכוונה tefilah will provide the opportunity to say fewer tefillot at a slower pace. This will allow for greater concentration on each tefilah that we say. We will be not be discussing tefilah. Instead, this minyan will spend almost all of its timedavening, with a particular focus on the Amida.

3. Children's Literature Tefilah
We will aim to attain some emotional resonance in the feelings of care, love, longing, and hope that are latent in powerful works of children’s literature. We will read 2-3 children's books before, during, and after the tefilah. Ultimately, we will direct those feelings to God (and hope for those feelings from God) and to those around us through tefilah. 

4. Help, Thanks, Wow - Children's Literature Tefilah
We will aim to attain some emotional resonance in the feelings of care, love, longing, and hope that are latent in powerful works of children’s literature. We will read 2-3 children's books before, during, and after the tefilah. Ultimately, we will direct those feelings to God (and hope for those feelings from God) and to those around us through tefilah. The novelist Ann Lamott just published a book called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. The title pretty much gives it all away--she argues that there are three most basic and most important prayers: we ask God for help, we thank God for the help that God has already bestowed, and we marvel at the wonders of God’s creation. The "Help, Thanks, Wow" tefilla will begin the week by reading an excerpt from Lamott's book to explore why these are the essential prayers. On subsequent days, everyone in the "Help, Thanks, Wow" tefilla will be asked to formulate a Help, a Thanks, and a Wow of his/her own, and those who feel comfortable doing so can share theirs with the group. In doing so, we will burrow beneath the ritual of a shul davening to get back to the essential nature of prayer.

5. Meditation Tefilah
This tefilah incorporates guided meditations through a minimal, halakhic tefila. The meditations are based on both Jewish and universal practices, including meditations from Sefer Yetzira and chasidic texts, as well as the practice of zazen, the breathing and body practices of Zen Buddhism. This tefilah also incorporates contemplative nigunim either between tefillot or to the words of a select tefilah.

6. Musical Tefilah
Inspired by the davening of Karlin (where there is a lot of screaming and crying out in the midst of prayer) and that of Rabbi Ebn Leader, we will cultivate a davening which is rooted in song. Sometimes repetitive, sometimes quiet and slow, sometimes loud and overpowering, music has the power to both express and stir up an emotional davening. This davening is for the sincere and not the cynical. Please bring your hearts, souls, voices, and musical instruments!

7. Women’s Tefilah
Women’s tefilah provides an all-girls space in which girls run and lead the davening. On Monday and Thursday girls will layn and get aliyot. We will also have an opportunity to learn and discuss tefillot written by and for women. 

8. Reflection Tefilah
In this tefilah, we will explore themes that emerge from various passages in the siddur. Each day, we will choose a particular tefilah to study, reflect on its theme, and write personal responses. We will pay specific attention to the themes of gratitude, wonder, forgiveness, peoplehood, and aspiration as they present themselves throughout the Shacharit service. Please bring a pen and paper/journal to this tefilah. 

9. Solitary Tefilah
This tefilah option is about connecting to God and yourself at your own pace in a quiet atmosphere. Everyone will have his/her own makom kavua with no 2 chairs next to one another. You will daven quietly, pace yourself, focus on the tefillot that are meaningful to you, and you can daven in whatever language you choose. You will be in an environment of prayer, but you will be davening alone, without interruption, and with only your own mind, heart and siddur, to guide you. For the last 5 minutes of each day we will come together as a group and reflect on the solitary tefilla experience. 

10. Tefilat Eit Tzara
The Ramban claims that the Biblical obligation to daven is only in times of crisis. In this minyan we will daven a quick psukei dezimra, followed by a 10 minute multimedia presentation and discussion preceding Barchu. Through the presentation and discussion we will learn about a particular crisis with the goal being to focus our tefillot on addressing a different issue each day. Issues will cover national, international and personal itei tzara.

11. Yoga Tefilah
Being in the right mood for tefilah is about mental focus and physical composure. In this tefilah group we will practice Yoga as a means towards achieving better focus and kavannah during tefilah. Bring a yoga mat if you have one, and make sure to dress appropriately for תפילה 

12. Tisch Tefilah
Stories and song are a powerful way of connecting to God. At this tefilah we will daven an abridged tefilah, followed by a vibrant tisch filled with inspiring song and stories.

13. Without Intelligence, Whence Prayer?
This service will attempt to clear the space in which meaningful tefilah can happen by focusing on intellectual reflection as a means of overcoming alienation from authentic prayer. Each day, prior to a slightly abbreviated tefilah, we will recite the birkhot ha-torah together and then study and discuss a different text essential to a satisfactory, and satisfying, practice of prayer. The explicit goal is to evoke the nature of tefilah in a manner that will initiate and enhance its heartfelt performance. 

14. Exploring Nusach Tefilah
This tefilah will explore nuschaot of tefilla from around the world by davening in a different nusach each day. We will highlight some of the major differences between Ashkenaz, Sefard, Eidot mizrach, and Nusach Ha-Ari.

15. Philosophy and Poetry of Prayer
Why should we pray? Does God really listen? Should I expect God to say "yes"? Is it really all about that, anyway? We will explore different philosophies of prayer, also using some of the tefillot themselves as our guide. פסוקי דזמרה will be shortened.

16. Shout it Out, Slow and Loud
This tefilah will employ the technique found in many sefaradi shuls in the world that all the words of the hazan are said out loud and together with all members of the kahal. We will say selected parts of the pesukei dezimra and tachanun on Mondays and Thursdays, skipping parts of those sections in the standard siddur, while saying the parts that we do say slowly, out loud and with a tune or two.

17. Piano Tefilah
After an abridged davening we will join together around the piano in the cafeteria for lively songs and stories to add joy to our day.

18. Artistic Expression Tefilah
Art is often likened to meditation- and by creating art we become closer to ourselves, nature and God. Students participating in Art/Tefilah option will daven an abbreviated tefilah and have time to create art with particular mindfulness toward spirituality.

19 Finding God in our Prayers
Are our prayers directed to God, to ourselves, or to our community? In this tefilah, a science teacher reflects on the meaning of particular prayers, especially those connected to health and wellness. We will daven an abridged davening, followed by stories and discussion.

20. Meditating on the Amidah
Using basic meditative breathing we will work through a minimal amount of davening and then focus on the thirteen central berachot of the Amida. We will learn to be present with our breath, our bodies and with the words of the siddur. In addition, time will be spent inserting ourselves into the prayers so that we are reciting our own words and not only the words of our tradition.

21. Israel Awareness Tefilah
Every morning we mention the land of Israel numerous times in our prayers, but how much attention do we really pay to it? This tefilah will highlight the portions of davening that focus on Israel. We will use those sections of tefilah as entryways into discussion of current political, religious and social issues facing the State of Israel. Through increased awareness of Israel’s current state of affairs we will be better equipped to direct our tefillot for her welfare.

22. Prayer and Justice- L’taken Olam B’malchut Shakkai
We will explore how tefilah can make change in the world. Join us for meditation, learning, and davening that connects Judaism's most heavenly ideas to our world's most real problems.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Watching You Daven

How does your davening change when you know someone is watching you?  I am not speaking about your teacher or rabbi, who might peek over to see if you are chatting with a neighbor, on the right page or have fallen asleep (I have seen this last one quite a bit).

I just got off an airplane trip where it was apparent that the person sitting next to me was so fascinated at the Jewish approach to davening that he was carefully studying each and every one of my moves.  For me, this emphasized the performance aspect to our worship in that we are proscribed to follow the directions and script of the specific tefilla. One equally needs to imbue their personal imprint onto the text and make it a 'service of the heart' but how honest can it be when you know another person is watching you?  

I have had this feeling before, when I first was the shaliach tzibur, leading the tefilla. As the leader I appropriated my concentration to proper enunciation, hitting the exact starting points and choosing good tunes and neglected the greater necessity to put my heart into the words that were exiting your mouth. Further as the leader it has happened (only to me?) that I was more fearful and concerned of the people staring behind me than the greater audience in the heavens which led me to have a near Olympic focus on the performance.  

Someone is always watching you daven - I figure the important lesson is that you need to have tefilla attitude that you must purely connect to your prayers and do your best, regardless of who may actually be paying attention.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Me in the Minyan? Prayer & Baseball

In my wanderings and travels I always like to peruse people's bookshelves - perhaps a lost art with the trending rise of kindles and e-books.  I recently came across Pray Ball! The Spiritual Insights of a Jewish Sports Fan by Rabbi James Gordon and it sparked my interest in others ways to approach the teaching of tefilla.  He describes his creative outreach approach to managing his synagogues demand to preserve the daily minyan: the Take Me Out to the Minyan incentive program.

In the first chapter, Gordon makes his ideological connection between davening and baseball:
Many parallels exist between a minyan and baseball. Each activity demands a basic number of participants. According to the American League, which follows the Designated Hitter's rule, ten players are needed. A minyan requires a minimum of ten Jewish men. In both baseball and a minyan, each participant individually plays an important role. However, to be effective in either activity, all participants mus participate as a group and give their maximum "team effort".  Similar to praying (davening) and playing baseball, the more spirited the group, usually the more successful the group. Finally, in a best-of-both worlds scenario, minyan and baseball become one and the same when - as in Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and the New York's Shea Stadium - there is, I have heard, a daily minyan during the seventh inning stretch in one of the concession room
The book is filled more with general Jewish wisdom mixed with his affection for sports (especially Chicago teams) than tips for tefilla, but I think Gordon's opening points touches on the core issues that is often neglected to be discussed/emphasized to young people - the present tension between the individual needs/desires and the group. He cites God's assurance to Abraham in Genesis (to be numerous as "stars of the heaven" and "the sand on the seashore") and the movie Field of Dreams to drive home this point. He concludes with the following:
Our Sages teach that these two analogies are symbolic of the importance of individuality as wells our connection to the community.  Like the stars, we as individuals must strive to succeed and shine bright. Like the sand on the seashore, we must be cohesive and work together as a community. 
The importance of striving to be like stars and sand is extremely applicable to both baseball and davening.  When we play baseball, a sport played sometimes on sand and at times under the stars, it is important for each individual to try his hardest to achieve greatness as both a hitter and fielder.  It is even more critical  however, for him to bond with his teammates in order to become a team player. Ultimately  this is the only way to succeed.   
When we pray, as individuals, we must each focus and daven with all our might. However, our Sages still teach us that the highest level of prayers is achieved only when we gather together as community with a minyan

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Do You Go to Shul?

Quote from the TabletMag article on the appointment of Jack Lew as the new US Secretary of Treasury:
‘If I wanted to work on Saturday, I have this 24/7 job. I come to shul to pray.’

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Praying with a Whole Heart and a Clear Mind

Rav Yosef Karo, one of my favorite people from Toledo (Spain), wrote in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Cha’yim (98:1) the following:
The one who prays must wholeheartedly concentrate on the meaning of the words which he utters with his lips. He must imagine that he stands in the presence of God. He should remove all other thoughts [from his mind], until his consciousness and concentration are completely absorbed with his prayer. He must imagine that if he were speaking before an earthly king, he would carefully compose his words and concentrate on them so as not to falter, all the more so  [when speaking] before the King of all kings, the "Holy One, blessed be He", who sees to the very heart of all thoughts. This was the practice of the early pious people and men of good deeds. They would meditate in solitude and concentrate on their prayers until they achieved a transcendent spiritual state wherein their soul overpowered their body, thus approaching a state of prophecy...
How do you teach this to kids?  Again, I find it interesting that meditation is a key word that is appearing in tefilla tips from Rabbis of every generation, but I am not hearing this word (nor concept) reverberating much amongst contemporary educators.