Friday, May 31, 2013

Chief Rabbi Sacks: Beyond the Fringe

The following Dvar Torah is from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks - published May 29, 2013- and raises great points on the tension regarding our inner and out clothing and our quest for spiritual connectivity. 
Beyond the Fringe

Our sedra ends with one of the great commands of Judaism - tsitsit, the fringes we wear on the corner of our garments as a perennial reminder of our identity as Jews and our obligation to keep the Torah’s commands:
God spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe: look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not stray after your heart and eyes which in the past have led you to immorality. You will thus remember and keep all my commandments and be holy to your God.
So central is this command, that it became the third paragraph of the Shema, the supreme declaration of Jewish faith. I once heard the following commentary from my teacher, Rabbi Dr Nahum Rabinovitch.

He began by pointing out some of the strange features of the command. On the one hand the sages said that the command of tsitsit is equal to all the other commands together, as it is said: “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.” It is thus of fundamental significance.

On the other hand, it is not absolutely obligatory. It is possible to avoid the command of fringes altogether by never wearing a garment of four or more corners. Maimonides rules: “Even though one is not obligated to acquire a [four-cornered] robe and wrap oneself in it in order to [fulfill the command of] tsitsit, it is not fitting for a pious individual to exempt himself from this command” (Laws of Tsitsit, 3: 11). It is important and praiseworthy but not categorical. It is conditional: if you have such a garment, then you must put fringes on it. Why so? Surely it should be obligatory, in the way that tefillin (phylacteries) are.

There is another unusual phenomenon. In the course of time, the custom has evolved to fulfill the command in two quite different ways: the first, in the form of a tallit (robe, shawl) which is worn over our other clothes, specifically while we pray; the second in the form of an undergarment, worn beneath our outer clothing throughout the day.

Not only do we keep the one command in two different ways. We also make different blessings over the two forms. Over the tallit, we say: “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” Over the undergarment, we say, “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the precept of the fringed garment.” Why is one command split into two in this way?

He gave this answer: there are two kinds of clothing. There are the clothes we wear to project an image. A king, a judge, a soldier, all wear clothing that conceals the individual and instead proclaims a role, an office, a rank. As such, clothes, especially uniforms, can be misleading. A king dressed as a beggar will not (or would not, before television) be recognized as royalty. A beggar dressed as a king may find himself honored. A policeman dressed as a policeman carries with him a certain authority, an aura of power, even though he may feel nervous and insecure. Clothes disguise. They are like a mask. They hide the person beneath. Such are the clothes we wear in public when we want to create a certain impression.

But there are other clothes we wear when we are alone, that may convey more powerfully than anything else the kind of person we really are: the artist in his studio, the writer at his desk, the gardener tending the roses. They do not dress to create an impression. To the contrary: they dress as they do because of what they are, not because of what they wish to seem.

The two kinds of tsitsit represent these different forms of dress. When we engage in prayer, we sense in our heart how unworthy we may be of the high demands God has made of us. We feel the need to come before God as something more than just ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the robe, the tallit, the great symbol of the Jewish people at prayer. We conceal our individuality – in the language of the blessing over the tallit, we “wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” It is as if we were saying to God: I may only be a beggar, but I am wearing a royal robe, the robe of your people Israel who prayed to You throughout the centuries, to whom You showed a special love and took as Your own. The tallit hides the person we are and represents the person we would like to be, because in prayer we ask God to judge us, not for what we are, but for what we wish to be.

The deeper symbolism of tsitsit, however, is that it represents the commandments as a whole (“look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord”) – and these becomes part of what and who we are only when we accept them without coercion, of our own free will. That is why the command of tsitsit is not categorical. We do not have to keep it. We are not obligated to buy a four-cornered garment. When we do so, it is because we chose to do so. We obligate ourselves. That is why opting to wear tsitsit symbolizes the free acceptance of all the duties of Jewish life.

This is the most inward, intimate, intensely personal aspect of faith whereby in our innermost soul we dedicate ourselves to God and His commands. There is nothing public about this. It is not for outer show. It is who we are when we are alone, not trying to impress anyone, not wishing to seem what we are not. This is the command of tsitsit as undergarment, beneath, not on top of, our clothing. Over this we make a different blessing. We do not talk about “wrapping ourselves in a fringed garment” – because this form of fringes is not for outward show. We are not trying to hide ourselves beneath a uniform. Instead, we are expressing our innermost commitment to God’s word and call to us. Over this we say the blessing, “who has commanded us concerning the precept of tsitsit” because what matters is not the mask but the reality, not what we wish to seem but what we really are.

In this striking way tsitsit represent the dual nature of Judaism. On the one hand it is a way of life that is public, communal, shared with others across the world and through the ages. We keep Shabbat, celebrate the festivals, observe the dietary laws and the laws of family purity in a way that has hardly varied for many centuries. That is the public face of Judaism – the tallit we wear, the cloak woven out of the 613 threads, each a command.

But there is also our inner life as people of faith. There are things we can say to God that we can say to no one else. He knows our thoughts, hopes, fears, better than we know them ourselves. We speak to Him in the privacy of the soul, and He listens. That internal conversation – the opening of our heart to Him who brought us into existence in love – is not for public show. Like the fringed undergarment, it stays hidden. But it is no less real an aspect of Jewish spirituality. The two types of fringed garment represent the two dimensions of the life of faith – the outer persona and the inner person, the image we present to the world and the face we show only to God.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Google Glass and Tefillin, What?

One way to get people to do the mitzvah of davening with tefillin is apparently to offer Google Glasses to say the blessing - what this author terms "geeky religious marketing".  I think this proves there really is a first time for everything. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Shared-Post: Giving Prayer a Prayer of a Chance

The following article was published on the 25th of May by Aryeh Ben David in the Times of Israel.  It offers a honest, pointed, and pedagogically sound theory - so why won't administrators and teachers try this approach?  Cliches are reflection of an effectual prayer and I am thinking more and more that we need to reboot our teaching of tefilla.

Giving Prayer a Prayer of a Chance

Rav Kook writes that one of the signs of the coming of the Messianic Era is that people will begin to hate rabbis. I think we’re getting pretty close.

Why hate rabbis? Because they will still be consumed with the small stuff, the details – and people will want more.

Organized prayer is an example. It’s just not working.

The overwhelmingly widespread disaster of organized prayer in religious high schools and synagogues is impossible to ignore – yet the rabbis keep offering the same worn-out clichés.

It’s not the system’s fault – you just have to try harder

This is how we've always done it and it worked for our grandparents

It’s a slippery slope and if we tamper with anything, the whole system will fall apart

From “lo l’shma – ba l’shma” (doing without connection will eventually bring connection)

It provides community-building

The system is not working – and we’re living the Emperor’s clothes story by choosing to ignore the extent of the problem.

As educators, we know that if one student fails a subject, it’s his fault. But if the whole class fails – then it is the teacher’s fault. Well, what if the whole school fails? What if the whole district fails? What if the whole city fails? Then there is a systematic problem going on which is bigger than any individual student, class, school, or district. That is what we have on our hands.

I was shocked by one particularly ghastly personal educational experience. I asked many orthodox rabbis and educators the following question: If a kid was having trouble connecting to organized prayer and you could look into your crystal ball and saw two potential alternatives – which path would you advise him?

Either: The boy could take a month off from praying the prayer book and just sit, meditate on God, look for God’s footprints in the world, and then after a month begin to say just a few lines – but only lines he was personally connected to and had meaning for him. Then he would keep slowly adding lines for the next months. And your crystal ball told you that this would dramatically improve his prayer focus and depth for the rest of his life.

Or: He would keep praying, trying harder, but there would be no significant deepening of his prayer life for the rest of his life.

To my shock and dismay – EVERY single rabbi and educator answered me that they would not advise taking the first route, even if they knew 100% that it would have positive effects for the next 50 years!
Well, I guess I am a heretic or maybe just an apikoris – but I don’t get the educational wisdom of that approach.

Personally, I took the first route, stopped davening for several month. I sat in tallit and tefillin, reflected on my relationship with God, and very slowly began to add selected words and phrases from the prayer book. The effect on my prayer life has been astounding. I really look forward to praying now. It is personal, meaningful, and from my heart.

The Talmud itself says that the core prayer experience should be “the work of the heart.” We have to bring our hearts into prayer – and today, a vast majority of guys keep telling me that they are just going through the motions.

The relationship with God is a core Jewish and human experience. The morning conversation creates a template for all the other conversations during the day. When kids (and adults) begin the day by having a mindless, unfocused, mumbling, “how long is this going to take and why is the shaliach tzibur taking so long” conversation with God – how does this portend for all of that day’s succeeding relationships?

Fixed and organized prayer serves a need to bring the community together and provides a structure for the formal, external exigencies of prayer. But now kids and adults are wanting more – wanting something that also evokes and responds to the inner voice of their heart and soul. Something that they are connected to and has personal meaning.

If we do not stop and consider how to give it to them – they will simply check out, or go somewhere else. It’s happening all around us.

Let’s not be consumed by the details – the time has come for more. The slope isn't that slippery. Isn't it time we started recognizing that we have a systemic failure on our hands and start seeking beyond the cliches?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

If You Could Ask God One Question?

Tefilla is special time to think and ponder - not just to chant words and verses (sometimes I forget this).  One of the biggest tensions in tefilla is that between form and substance - the rules of what must be said and when against the feelings and thoughts of the heart behind the structure. The Mishna in Brachot cites Rebbe Eliezer teaching, "one who makes his prayer fixed (keva) - his prayer is not a prayer (tahnunim)". The natural structural platform for spontaneous prayer is during the shma koleuni section of the Amidah - we you can add your own requests and ruminations.

But what if you only could as one question?  Chief Rabbi Sacks answers this question arguing that it is the "best question anyone should ask God."  I think this is a great exercise to ask your students - and push each person to focus the essence of their prayers and actions.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Who is Your Davening Mentor?

I came across an article by Rabbi Shumely Boteach in the Times of Israel about Eli Wiesel's Healing Jewish Spirit.  Having heard Boteach speak publicly before I was certainly expecting a more controversial approach to whatever topic he was going to address.  In this article he rather brings out a different aspect to Nobel Peace Prize winner Eli Wiesel. The article propelled me to think of who I want to ask about their relationship to davening and Hashem.

Boteach writes:

Once I asked him, “Did you lose your God after the Holocaust.” He answered, “God was my friend as a boy. I was a young Chassid, and God accompanied me everywhere. And for a time, after the war, I did not wish to have a relationship with Him. But He never left me completely, and now He is back fully in my life. But the relationship has changed. I have a right to assert my place. It is now more a rapport, not of equals, of course, but of two parties with a real and painful dialogue.”

As adults, how did each of us develop to be the soulful and purposeful people we strive to be?  I revel in this question every time I go to a minyan of mostly older people who have logged decades of rising early in the morning to shul to keep the relationship and commitment going forward.  We are stuck in the sandwich generation, between the great ones and the young ones - trying to find the proper ways to continue the traditions, for their own benefit and for greater mission of the Jewish people.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Are You Your Prayer?

I just came across the story of Zach Sobiech- as some of the readers here may have heard since he just died yesterday. This short twenty minute documentary shares his story and life values.

It is hard and emotional - and for me captures the essence of a tefilla.  I am my prayer!  ואני תפילתי

Zach's story reminds me to have the kavanah to my actions and prayers; I hope that one can lean this lesson without cancer as an instructor.  May his memory be for a blessing!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Benching Gomel

Perhaps it is the most mumbled prayer in shuls - by both the person who says it and the jumbled, awkward response that is beyond the normative "amen".  Birkat HaGomel is recited on various conditions explained here, one of which is by someone who has be released from prison. You can watch and read here about Gilad Shalit's recent recitation of birkat hagomel for the first time since his release from captivity - consider the importance of context in all of our tefillot and how when a prayer is said in the right way by the right person, it can really take your breath away.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Parent's Prayer

On the eve of Rosh Hodesh Sivan, it is some people's custom to recite a special tefilla, by the Shla - Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz. He wrote a Parent's Prayer on the eve of Rosh Hodesh Sivan pointing to it as the most auspicious time to pray for the physical and spiritual welfare of one's children and grandchildren, since Sivan was the month that the Torah was given to the Jewish people.

One side not: my son came home from school and the prayer that he wrote for his parents was that we should have enough food to feed him (he is already saving up to buy himself a kindle)!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Jerusalem Day- Song & Prayer

Tonight begins Yom Yerushalyim - the historic day in 1967 that the Old City and Temple Mount returned to Jewish control for the first time since the Second Temple period.  There is much to say about this day and this city.  Gil Student wrote an excellent piece a few years ago about the quandary the victory posed for some religious Jews to say or not say Hallel. Obviously there is politics, and ideology, and geography, and other craziness that is associated with Jerusalem but I am still amazed, as an 11 year resident of the city, how powerfully the tune and words to "Jerusalem of Gold" effects me.  For me, it is a tefilla-like experience and thus I am thrilled to pause today and appreciate that we have such special place in the world, despite the politics, ideology, geography and craziness.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Why is it so Hard to Daven?

I don't mean to actually daven - connecting and transcending to Hashem.  Rather I am referring to the difficulty to find the time and space to really have a good davening.  Life gets in the way and by that mean, tasks, errands, people, pop-ups, pressures, and laziness.

The following article, by Josh Kulp, appeared in the Times of Israel titled "Why is it so easy to keep kosher but so hard to diet?"  I wanted to share it because I believe the author compares a personal struggle with a conventional Jewish tradition within a cultural context of choice and desire. I am personally motivated by the obligation to daven daily and think that Kulp's thesis pushes one past the temptation for spirituality and mindfulness and into a structure of positive struggle to achieve these goals. Without the obligation to pray, I think my tefilla would be like a diet.

I once heard of someone who wanted to lose weight but was having trouble laying off late night sweets. So what she would do is eat a little piece of meat at night and then she wouldn’t find it difficult to refrain from eating dairy desserts. This made me wonder why it would be easier to keep kosher then to diet. After all, the rewards for keeping kosher, if there really are any, are far less tangible and immediate than the rewards for losing weight. For most people, losing weight is almost certainly healthy and our society generally thinks that skinny people are more attractive than heavier ones. Compliments, such as “did you lose weight? You look great!” are common. “I heard you’ve successfully been avoiding eat milk after meat. Wow! Very impressive.” Not so much. Why would this woman, and probably many like her, find it impossible to break keeping kosher but exceedingly easy to ignore a diet?

I don’t think the answer is simply that fear of God is greater than fear of being overweight. While this might be true for some people, it’s not true for a lot of people I know who keep kosher more out of habit than out of any belief that God will punish them for breaking it. I suspect this woman’s diet “trick” would work equally well for a person whose “fear of heaven” is not an overwhelming force in their lives. They would be far more likely to cheat on a diet that they are convinced will improve their health and looks than eat something non-kosher.

So what can dietitians and those wishing to lose weight (for the sake of clarity and so that my mother won’t worry – I do not want to lose weight) or just in general eat more healthy learn from kashrut? I am going to suggest a few but I’d be happy if readers would pipe in with their thoughts as well. Here are my three possible answers for why kashrut is easier than dieting:

1: It’s set in stone
Kashrut has a defined list of what you can eat and what you can’t. It’s relatively simple (even if the nitty gritty laws get a bit complicated). What I would suggest this translates into is that a more effective diet doesn’t count calories, but gets rid of certain bad ones – basically simple sugars. I’ve often told people cut out the following four “horsemen of the apocalypse”: bread (not just white bread, all bread), pasta, refined sugar and potatoes. Another piece of advice I give is don’t drink any calories (except beer :) ) This makes it a little more like the certainty of kashrut. The person who won’t eat dairy after a meat meal doesn’t really need to think, should I eat it this time, should I not? She just does it.

2: It’s forever
Keeping kosher is for life, dieting is seen as temporary. This is an important distinction. When one decides to diet, usually the idea is that you’ll diet now, lose weight and eat more again later. Or at least “go back to normal”. But no one I know decides to keep kosher for a short time–i.e. I’ll keep kosher now until Yom Kippur, then I’ll stop. Keeping kosher means you plan on doing so for life. If you want a diet to work, you can’t think that you’re going to make a temporary change. Of course this means that a diet cannot be so intolerable that it won’t be sustainable. A resolution to diet might mean to decide that for the next six months I’ll suffer a bit, be a bit hungry, so that I can really lose weight. And after that, I’ll find a sustainable balance of diet and exercise. But that “after that” period must be a commitment in one’s mind to do so forever. I know this is not easy, but the minute one says, “I’ll diet today so I can go back to my usual habits tomorrow” nothing will really be accomplished, just like keeping kosher today so that I can have a cheeseburger tomorrow doesn’t seem to make much sense.

3: It has taboos
Keeping kosher is highly habitual. I know people who really don’t practice much Judaism, who don’t believe in it all that much, and yet still keep kosher because that’s how they grew up. I grew up in a kosher and fairly observant home, but when I went to college I abandoned most aspects of Jewish practice (I returned to them after college). But I never even contemplated eating non-kosher food. The idea of eating pork or milk and meat or even non-kosher meat was simply revolting to me. Diets don’t work that way. People don’t develop an aversion to Cheetos. Coke doesn’t become a taboo. So somehow for a successful diet to work, one would have to turn unhealthy food into taboo foods. I’ve seen this happen with gluten, although I don’t recommend going gluten free unless you’re truly allergic to the stuff. It also happens with people who become vegetarian or vegan, although this won’t necessary cause weight loss. But maybe just thinking of certain foods (the four horsemen and drinks with calories) as taboo or as causing an allergic reaction might help. About ten years ago I decided we would never buy soft drinks (diet or otherwise) in our house again. I made them taboo and basically we don’t drink them at home (occasionally I will have one outside the house, a little like the phenomenon of keeping kosher in but not out of the house).

So, now it’s your turn: Why is it easy to keep kosher and hard to diet? And why, in general, are certain habits or resolutions easier for us to keep than others? Why does our resolve stand up strong against certain temptations but melt away like butter on a warm piece of toast against others?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Davening when Stressed Out

Usually when people are too busy or stressed, it is hard to find the free time for hobbies, be it the gym, reading, or knitting.  The same could be said for davening, in that a person may skip shul, daven quicker at home, or auto-pilot through the words because of the distraction or blood pressure.

The following article from The Atlantic discusses how relaxation techniques can change how you think, how you feel, and apparently your genes.  I don't advise telling someone who is over-stressed to "calm down" or "chill out" (trust me from my own non scientific study) - however if we realize that the habit of properly davening can refocus a person to purpose and mindfulness, one can reduce stress levels.  One final point, I might protest when the author says that "it's not hard to learn" - as I find teaching prayer is a pretty difficult mission.

Study: How Yoga Alters Genes
Alternative therapies meant to help us "break the train of everyday thinking" have effects on a cellular level.

PROBLEM: The flight or fight response -- the natural response to stress -- essentially puts the nervous system in overdrive. So it's no surprise that it's opposite state, known as the relaxation response to stress, is associated with feeling good, in a general sense. People are able to evoke the relaxation response by repeating a yoga pose, prayer, or mantra while disregarding other thoughts, and it's been shown to protect against psychological disorders like anxiety and depression as well as physical conditions like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and types of cancer that are exacerbated by stress.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Subjects trained 26 adults with no prior experience in this type of meditation for eight weeks. They practiced deep breathing, repeated mantras, and learned to ignore intrusive thoughts. Initially, they were given blood tests immediately before and 15 minutes after listening to a 20-minute health education CD. This was repeated after their training, only with a CD that guided them in their meditation. Twenty-five other participants, who had long-term experience in evoking the relaxation response, were tested as well.

RESULTS: All of the subjects' blood samples revealed changes in gene expression following meditation. The changes were the exact opposite of what occurs during flight or fight: genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance were turned on, while those involved in inflammation were turned off. These effects were more pronounced and consistent for long-term practitioners.

IMPLICATIONS: People who practice simple meditation aren't "just relaxing," explained the study's senior author, Dr. Herbert Benson (he of the aforementioned institute). Instead, they're experiencing "a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress." While this study only looked at one way of reaching this state, people have been figuring this out for themselves for thousands of years, through yoga, prayer, and other forms of meditation. Yet this is the first time researchers have been able to use basic science to show that these practices actually have an observable, biological effect.

It's only gene expression that is altered, not the genes themselves. But these results also showed that the effects of the relaxation response become stronger with practice, typically twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes. Fortunately it's not hard to learn -- in what was perhaps the most pleasant turn an interview has ever taken, Benson guided me through a meditation session. "Do it for years," said Benson, "and then these effects are quite powerful in how they change your gene activity."