Category Archives: Jewish Spirituality

I wonder who atheists thank?

The saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” presumes that once under the threat of death, the most avowed atheist will plead to God for help in order to live. But how about in when waking up to a freshly wrapped day? Who does the atheist thank? Perhaps nature. How about when there’s good luck? Who gets thanked then? Exactly who is the recipient of gratitude when things work out?

What about our daily experiences? Are we like the “everyday atheist” who has no need for regular interactions with the Divine?

How about when we find ourselves avoiding an accident and call out “Thank God, I almost hit that car” or when we mindlessly say “Thank Heaven, I remembered to do…” .

Are we able to pause in that moment and actually focus on our gratitude to the Creator? Or do we just move on….?

We also tend to write off happy coincidences as just ‘good luck’ or we might even thank “Lady Luck” for our good fortune. Worse, as Jews, we might mindlessly request that others “cross your fingers” (of Christian origin, referring to the cross) or “knock on wood” (ditto plus pagan origins) when we hope things will work out in our favor.

Yet, when we experience pain or are filled with darkness, we might reach out, calling out to the One Above for solace from suffering. Or when we need answers for the unanswerable. The times of intense struggle are often when we tend to reach out to a higher power, to the One who might listen and receive our pleas. Is it possible that our everyday language might be a stumbling block for us?

Our uncomfortable feelings with invoking God’s name might be due to several reasons, but one could be the difficulty in acknowledging God in language that doesn’t fit the Jewish concept of God. 

 
 
“Judaism would be better off without the phrase “belief in God.”  First, it is a Christian phrase, not a Jewish one, and it suggests that the essence of religion is faith – a Christian value.  Second, the phrase implies a certain kind of God – a God in which one either does or does not believe, probably an anthropomorphic God, a cosmic puppetmaster who sorts the bad people from the good, and makes the rain fall.”

Michaelson states that the phrase “Belief in God” should be trashed in the ‘lexicographic graveyard’.

The trap that we might fall into is thinking about God as apart from us, instead of a part of us. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about being in ‘radical amazement’ for existence itself, which is God. When we recite the Shema, we’re not just saying that God is One and not Two…we’re saying that God is All.  Everything in our lives is part of the grand wonderment that is creation. 

When we can experience life in that way, by regarding the world around us as special and sacred…and keep that within our minds even during the darkest days, we will be connecting with the spiritual deep within us. 

It means turning off our own naysaying ego that interrupts with “but that’s not realistic”, “that’s too difficult to do on a daily basis”, “who has time to focus on that all the time?”,  “I couldn’t possibly ignore all the bad things around me”, “that sounds too loosey-goosey for me”, and all the other blocks that will work their way into our path. 

Ignore those voices. Pay attention to the smaller voice inside you, the voice that is part of something bigger and greater, the part that is aligned with Love and not Fear. 

Try it. 


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Why should I change?

 
 

How different am I this week than I was the week before?

The chameleon has it relatively easy. Spending not too much energy, he gets a whole new look and adapts well to his environment. The visible outer change is prompted by a detailed inner process. We can learn from that.

Every week, I meditate a bit with a kavannah (stated intention) before ushering in Shabbat’s glowing candlelight. It is a brief glimmer of time to check in with myself. Did I progress this week? Was I kinder? More giving? More attentive to loved ones? Did I procrastinate less? Did I do what I set out to do? Did I change?

Sometimes the answer gives me a sickened regret for time not well spent. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov minces no words when he says:

If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for tomorrow?

Thankfully, I will get another chance. As I usher in Shabbat, I focus on the beautiful teaching that all that was unfinished from the week is considered complete, the culmination. So, I get a reprieve. I get to pretend for a full 25 hours that all is as it should be. I love that teaching.

In a few days, we will welcome the secular New Year 2021 with arms wide open, ready to put 2020 to bed. On countless fronts, the year has been incredibly challenging. The only think left for us to think about is how, in 20/20 our eyesight/awareness might have changed for the better. And we can be grateful for that.

So, the same contrivance that works so well on a weekly basis–thinking that all is well and complete just doesn’t hold true for almost an entire year. 
 
This sounds crazy, but for this reason I find myself oddly hanging on to 2020 a bit, like a person who is not quite ready to let go of the lifeboat in order to climb aboard the rescue ship. What? Have I totally lost it? I am being saved, why am I languishing around?

It comes down to not being quite sure that I actually did enough of what is truly important in 2020.

Despite all the zooming, tik-tok’ing, cooking, baking and cleaning—I am not sure that I journaled enough, prayed enough, talked to God enough.

I am not sure that I cleaned enough of my own soul’s ‘shmutz’ (Yiddish for dirt, rhymes with “puts”) that tends to block my inner being.

For me, being on a path of growth means just that…being committed to going from one place to another. And I have to leave the old place in order to start anew.

It is in our tradition, we are a people that leave places to start again in new ones. We have thousands of years of journeying in our Jewish DNA, beginning with Abraham and continuing on in almost every story in Genesis…we leave and finally arrive.

It’s been our history, chased out by pogroms, massacres, Inquisitions, death marches. We begin again.

So, I will begin again. I will get into the rescue ship, glad to leave 2020 behind, committed to undergoing chameleon-like change in the year ahead.

Starting with my inner soul, hoping that my outer behavior will be a reflection of my new colors.

 

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Sacred Relationships

 

When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.

Martin Buber

The middle-aged grocery store clerk was puzzled for the third time by the vegetable that moved down the conveyor belt. I felt a little bad that she had to interrupt her scanning rhythm to look up the price yet again for an unknown vegetable.

After I told her what they were (leeks), I ventured “You must have to remember a lot of different vegetables”

Yup, especially since I don’t use any of the produce here. I don’t cook…

Really, how do you manage that?

In great detail she told me that her father lived with her, his health situation, her obligation to care for him, and her choice to buy only frozen food, since she only wants to prepare what she can ‘stick in the microwave’.

I tried to convey concern through understanding looks and responses, made more difficult by wearing a mask. Still, as we spoke, her face got more animated and her eyes brightened.

She revealed so much about her life to me in such a short time and in the process, made me more sensitive to her life situation. All in a few sentences, with a pitiful amount of effort.

It is so unbelievably easy to bring a little humanity into our interactions.

Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) writes about two kinds of relationships in his book I and Thou. First is the type he identifies as a transactional relationship, which tends to be utilitarian. You’re just a waiter/teller/cashier/delivery person) so I don’t really need to interact with you. What can you do for me? I don’t have time, but just give me the bill/receipt/total/message.

Buber calls this type the “I – It” relationship and describes it as ‘monological’, meaning each person is talking at someone, not really with someone. It’s like a conversation we might have with a bot in a chat box. Each party says what they want to say, and nothing about the interaction contains any personal recognition.

This one-way ‘broadcast’ honors neither the speaker or the listener.

However, the “I-Thou” relationship is one that Buber calls “dialogical”; when two people relate to each other beyond the one-dimensional. They honor each other as people made in the Image of God —B’tzelem Elokim. The highest form of this relationship is when we converse with God.

The people in the relationship recognize the holy in each other, and that special quality is a palpable sacred presence when two people get together. God is the electricity that surges between them when two people relate to each other authentically and humanly.

It is the meeting not just of two entities, but of two souls.


Questions you might want to ask

Think about the relationships in your life. How would you describe them using this paradigm?

What about the quality of your relationships would you consider to be sacred?

What might hold you back from relating in this way?

For the full text of Buber’s I and Thou, click here. https://archive.org/details/IAndThou_572/mode/2up


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spirited prayer from an unlikely source

Several years ago, on a lazy Sunday morning toward the end of a weekend getaway, my husband and I were strolling down the main street in Annapolis. The quiet was a presence in itself since shops were still closed, and the street was bereft of its usual bumper to bumper traffic. We took in how different the sleepy street seemed compared to the hustle and bustle of the night before.

As we approached a nondescript brick-faced building this amazing jazzy music from a live band filled the sidewalk space with inviting and energetic sounds. Saxophone and trumpet, along with piano and drums rhythmically provided a counterpoint to the quiet.

I wondered aloud what bar would possibly be open on a Sunday morning. I looked above the glass doors for some signage, but there was none. Not a single hint of what was inside. This was so strange.

But the music didn’t let me go.

So we lingered awhile, taking in the phenomenal music. I guess we might have been there a bit too long, because a bouncer-type person approached us through the closed glass doors, his arms muscular and huge, wearing a crisp white shirt and necktie with pressed pants.

Opening the door, he asked if we wanted to come in.

Since I couldn’t actually tell whether he was, in a nice way, asking us to move along and leave, or offering a genuine invitation to enter, my expression most likely said ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

All kinds of things ran through my head. Was this a gambling hall? An illicit private party?

Curiosity got the better of me. Almost as we were getting ready to move along I asked “What’s inside?”, probably a little too naïvely and not hiding the doubtful look on my face.

“Ma’am, we’re a Baptist church, wanna come in?”

What, a church??? Not what I thought at all.

“Uh, we were just listening to the music, it’s fantastic…so amazing….but we’re Jewish, but thank you….”

“You sure? It’s not a problem, you can come in and visit anyway.”

“But we’d be interrupting…isn’t there a service? Besides, we can’t stay long…we would have to leave…..” Of course, I was envisioning the services I was used to, when on Shabbat it would be almost pointless to arrive after the Torah service. We didn’t want to be disrespectful.

“It’s no matter at all, stay as long as you like, leave when you want. No pressure.”

Wow, this was a different concept.

So we entered slowly as he ushered us through heavy wooden doors. We found ourselves in a wide open room, filled with long wooden pews speckled with about 100 people or so. I was relieved to see that the surrounding walls were totally bare, no visuals or images that would have made us feel instantly uncomfortable, prompting us not to stay.

We sat in an unoccupied pew, toward the back of the room, trying to be inconspicuous. Right. We looked around and instantly felt so underdressed in our athleisure wear. We were a stark contrast to everyone’s Sunday best. Both women and men wore hats, and the women’s were works of art; feathers, sequins, and netting. We were also the only white people in the room.

This was another world entirely. A spirited chorus on the stage (bimah?), dressed in white robes, joined in for the next rhythmic rendition of a prayer, and everyone started clapping, slowly rising from their seats, energetically singing along. The lyrics melted into each other but nothing of what we heard was squirm-worthy for us. In fact, I hear more objectionable music around the winter holidays than I did that morning.

The music picked up and the excitement was palpable as the oak floor pulsed with the beat and as the stomping grew louder. Arms waved to the rhythm and it was evident that each person was making the experience personal. There seemed to be no peer pressure to behave in a certain way. This was striking.

Everyone was ‘all in’ and personalizing their experience. They were communing with a higher power, and it seemed as if that’s what they cared about and what they were there for. No one was looking around to see if their behavior was out of line, or too spirited.

There was no way I wanted to leave, even though I was an observer, because before my eyes were deeply spiritual people who were so involved in their prayer experience that I was mesmerized. I had never experienced anything like it.

The service continued in that way while people began noticing us. Some turned toward us and smiled, with kind and understanding looks that seemed to say “yup, we know you’re the only white people here, but don’t you bother about that, just enjoy.”

So we did. We listened to the minister preach as his arms emphatically gestured through the ups and downs of his message, which was about love and being true to the Lord and true to yourself. His passion grew to a crescendo, and his sermon ended with more singing and praise. If I took the word “Jesus” out of it, the message had meaning for all.

For the rest of the time that we were there (we didn’t stay for too long after that) there was no part of the service that wasn’t energetically sung or swayed to. They were there to gain spiritual nourishment not approval.

We left with an indescribable fulfilled feeling, and an appreciation for what we just witnessed, people who were enthralled with their faith and not shy about showing it, even to two outsiders.

When immersed in a truly spiritual experience, you are lost to thinking about time and the judgment of others. The purity of what you’re feeling surely carries you, and I think it is what we all strive for in our prayers, an untainted experience of the Divine so powerful that others can feel it.


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Funny, I only hear from you when you need something

A little while ago, before you moved away, you had a very close friend. You spoke almost every day, and sometimes you finished each other’s thoughts. Often, there wasn’t even a need to say anything. You related to each other on a feeling level. If anything bothered you, you reached out. But time has passed, and your conversations are far fewer. You don’t share as much and so the details of daily life don’t seem as relevant. You pause before calling. You second guess yourself. When you do speak, the conversations are polite, but not as rich as when you spoke every day. How is that so? Wouldn’t you have even more to talk about now? But it doesn’t work like that. The more distance you have between times of connection, the more distant you feel.

The same is true of your relationship with God. It is difficult to muster up the emotional content you need to develop a relationship when you connect only a few times a year.

Prayer is about relationship. [Continue reading here…]


The Business of Life

Life and Loss

[Please bear with me as I am in the midst of transitioning this blog to my new website. Please subscribe on that site, InnerJudaism to continue receiving my posts. Thank you!]

“Now as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to G-d. That idea has no place in the imaginative world of the first book of the Torah. To the contrary: the covenant is G-d’s challenge to us, not ours to G-d. The meaning of the events of Chayei Sarah is that Abraham realised that G-d was depending on him. Faith does not mean passivity. It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise—who must bring it about.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l

 

For most of us, these times are difficult and as many have said, this year has wreaked plenty of havoc in our lives. If we even begin to focus on the societal losses of life, personal space, and more, the list can be overwhelming. Hearing about the deaths of some of my heroes this year has added new reasons for me to be sad.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l, Representative John Lewis (may his memory be for a blessing), and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg z”l were champions of justice and worked their entire lives on demonstrating the importance of standing up for what you believe in and not desisting from the huge effort that often takes.  

Dealing with loss 

This week’s parsha (portion), Chayei Sarah, puts death front and center. In the first few verses, we experience the cries of Avraham as he bemoans the loss of his life partner who accompanied him on his dogged pursuit of changing the world for the better.

Although I ‘got to know’ Sarah by reading about her in various Biblical stories, it was not until I studied the text in this parsha (portion) that I learned how much she was revered. Maybe my early impressions were formed because most often it seemed that Sarah was acted upon (“Quick, knead and make cakes, you will have a son, act as my sister”, etc.) and that her place was most often in the background. But as we get older we realize that the person behind is often the one steering the boat.

I was unaware of just how much she was respected and admired until commentators enlightened me on this (you can read my sourcesheet here). In Talmudic times, Rabbi Abba noted that of all the women in the world, the Torah only mentions Sarah’s age by numbers of days and years. It is if we are asked to truly focus on the fullness of her life. This is only evident by reading the Hebrew, where we are asked to repeat the word shanah (year) three different times. This makes us read her age slowly, not just run through how old she was, but to take stock on a life well lived. The midrash notes that the extent of her prophecy was even greater than Avraham’s (Shemot Rabbah 1:1). 

The business of life

After Avraham bemoans his great loss, he gets up from sitting with her body to go about the business of purchasing land for her burial. These negotiations were complex and riddled with opportunities for failure. We are told that this was one of the tests that Abraham endured. After all, God promised him land but not that it would come easily. He had to deal with an incredible amount of obstacles to purchase the Cave of Machpelah which was at the edge of a field, not worth much, but for which he paid 400 shekels of silver, an exorbitant amount in those days (I learned that sum equals about 6 million dollars in today’s currency). And so it goes. Through loss, we often see a person in a new light. We focus on the legacy of their lives and what they leave us with, instead of the fact that they are no longer here physically. But we also challenge ourselves in new ways that we could not have predicted. We rise to the occasion. We overcome.

Through our losses, may we heal by carrying the important values of someone’s life in our hearts and may we continue on the path that they have set for us. 


Seeing and Not Seeing: Hagar’s test

Photo by Elizaveta Dushechkina on Pexels.com

“Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.”

This week we will journey deeply into just a few verses of the Torah portion Vayera [וַיֵּרָ֤א meanings include: appeared/fear/awe/saw]. We will see that almost all variations of this word have interrelated and complex meanings and in the Hebrew, there are numerous words relating to ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’. As we study the text, it will prompt us to ask some pretty big questions.

In what ways do I acknowledge God as the Source? Do I see the miraculous every day, or am I blinded by my own security in the regularity of what’s around me? Is my relationship with God based on fear, awe, or a combination? Which circumstances prompt me to waiver in my knowledge of God? Continue reading here...

[I am in the midst of transitioning this blog to my new website, Inner Judasim and it is a longer process than I anticipated!]

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Your Inward Journey: Lech Lecha

The first step is often the most difficult.

I am in the midst of transitioning this blog to my new website, Inner Judasim. (This is a longer process than I anticipated!). Until that occurs, I will duplicate the blog below, or you can read it here. In the meantime, if you are a subscriber here, please sign up on that site to continue receiving my posts. Thank you!

“One of the greatest religious problems is that people fear having a relationship with God and consequently distance themselves from Him.”

Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847 – 1905, who is known by this major writing).

In Genesis (B’reisheet, 12:1) God says to Abraham “Lech-Lecha” (לֶךְ־לְךָ֛), which is most often translated as “Go forth”. Technically however, the Hebrew meaning is different and contains layers of meanings that help us understand Judaism on a deeper level.

Abraham, as the first Jew, is the one who recognizes that there is the One great unifying force in the universe. He is told to leave everything he has known for a place that he knows nothing about.

Hebrew origins

The root word for Lech (לֶךְ) is where the word Halacha is derived, simply translated as “law” as in following or keeping Halacha, but in its essence it more accurately means ‘walking the walk’. Behaving as we need to.

So, on a basic level, Abraham is also told to walk, to continue on. To know that he is doing the right thing.

This has been our story as Jews. We move from place to place, sometimes willingly, sometimes under duress. We journey. We leave behind houses, belongings, tangible evidence of our memories. We move on and more forward.

When I was growing up, I often heard the term ‘wandering’ Jew, which was often used to describe the history of the Jewish people. This notion could not be more wrong. We haven’t wandered…beginning with Abraham and continuing with our leaving Egypt, we journey toward a destination. There is no mystery about what is leading us to go where we need to go. We are journeying toward wholeness, a state of completeness. This is a lifetime effort and only those who haven’t bothered to know their true calling are wandering.

The spiritual Hebrew meaning

Abraham’s journey will take him inward, the meaning of “Lech Lecha”..to go into yourself. Like Abraham, in order to make a substantial change in your life, you must leave the place you’ve been, turn inward to your inner voice, and then head out for an entirely new territory.

Doing so will allow you to be directed inwardly, but at the same time will allow you to be open to a higher Guide.

From your land

The very next words after Lech Lecha is mei’artzecha (מֵאַרְצְךָ֥) Abraham is to leave his land (artzecha, ארצך), which the commentator Abarbanel (1437 – 1508) says is one of the mitzvot that was commanded from the verse “Go forth from your land…”meaning that one’s soul leaves material things in order to fully realize the soul’s potential.

Artzecha (ארצך) is related to the word artziut…spiritually meaning your earthiness, your ties toward the material and mundane, your inclination to be rooted in the tangible.

May this Torah portion inspire you to seek your true path, to find wholeness….and to welcome HaShem as your Guide.

 

 

 


Add your light to the darkness

In the times of Noah, there was total lawlessness in the world. Just 10 generations (according to tradition) after Adam, the world is in a horrid state. 

Sometimes it is difficult to read through most of the parasha (portion) without a sense of despondency…despite the redemptive ending. 

The Notion of Lawlessness in our Texts

Throughout the expanse of our texts, the word for lawlessness, (חמס) takes on different shades of meaning, and it appears in the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, in an exhortation:

כִּֽי־יָק֥וּם עֵד־חָמָ֖ס בְּאִ֑ישׁ לַעֲנ֥וֹת בּ֖וֹ סָרָֽה׃

If a man appears against another to testify maliciously and gives false testimony against him…. [19:16]. 

We might infer from this usage that this tendency toward lawlessness does not have to be defined in terms that connote outright violence, but can involve intention for evil which is a more sophisticated form of wickedness. 

God created us with the capacity to have free will, and in the case above, our inclinations toward either positive or negative actions are often more subtle. Should I listen to someone’s opinion who differs from mine or not? Can I put myself in another’s place or not? Should I bother to speak up or not?

We know that it can be a daily battle as to whether we behave in righteous ways or not. Sometimes the decisions we make that have the most complex repercussions are the very ones we did not think too much about.  

But what do we do when society as a whole seems to be on the wrong course, headed towards evil in so many aspects? How can we bring in our own light to dissipate the darkness? What possible effect can small actions have on the greater whole? 

Can Evil itself be a Source for Good? 

Amazingly, there is a Kabbalistic tradition that evil itself can be a source for good. How is that so? How can evil, of the highest magnitude, flip into a positive source?

Again, how does the light pierce the darkness? This might help us understand: 

“…only a broken and disordered state of affairs such as we have in the world today can provide the optimal environment within which humanity can exercise the greatest spiritual, moral, aesthetic and intellectual virtues that truly make us a reflection of God.

The discordant, unassimilated, and antagonistic effects of both our personal complexes and the evil in the universe call forth our highest potentialities. It’s similar to how a road test for a car involves being put under the most difficult conditions to push it to its edge and elicit the limits of its performance capabilities.

This world is a perfect realm for the “road testing” of our souls. Humanity’s highest virtues are called upon when confronted by evil.” [Paul Levy : “Light Hidden in the Darkness: Kabbalah and Jungian Psychology”]

So, in what ways can you add your light to the darkness? The surest chance for you to experience an uplift is to select just one thing you will do each day to bring more light into the world.

The choices can be dependent on what you personally bring to the world, with your talents and God-given skills. It might be a phone call, a song you sing to someone, doing someone a favor, giving tzedakah (righteous giving)….the list is endless.                      

You probably are already doing some of these wonderful things. What I’m suggesting is that you do whatever it is you decide to do with intention. Next time, catch yourself…stop before you do a mitzvah and say a b’racha (blessing), that you are able to do this very action.

Say a blessing to HaShem for giving you the gifts that enable you to bring yourself into the world in this way. Doing so will increase your connection to God, and will be your own way of bringing the light into the darkness.


You can also visit me here, on my new website “Inner Judaism”


A Journey to “Inner Judaism”

Photo by Ian Turnell on Pexels.com

This blog has become an intimate part of my life. I began writing it in 2011 as part of a class on Educational Technology. The assignment was to explore different blog platforms, choose one, write a quick introductory “hello”, and post. 

From then on, I was hooked. Thousands of visitors and views later, I shared my many experiences with you: what it was like working with Jewish teens, convincing others about the importance of post b’nai mitzvah Jewish education, stressing about the lack of support from the Jewish community, and what it has felt like to go deeper into the realm of spirituality.

I have been fortunate to write what I feel and think in the hope that you will connect a little bit to what I’m sharing with you.  

This blog has been my therapist, my keeper of grudges, and my platform for voicing so much of what I experienced within my little Jewish world. 

Communicating with you has also allowed me to meet new people who are committed to our Jewish tradition, and it has been a blessing. 

As much as I value writing about the potential for Jewish learning and practices to really change people from the inside out, it is quite another thing entirely to experience it.

Recently, I’ve developed and facilitated courses that speak to the quality of learning and interaction that enable a deep awareness of the soul, an intimate connection with others and the fostering of a relationship with God.

Attending so many Zoom events and learning sessions these past few months left me with a flatness afterward that was not due to a lack of information presented to me, but the absence of meaningful interaction with others.

Nothing in me changed as a result of my participation. Time is too precious not to gain from each and every experience. 

With gratitude to HaShem, I’ve been able to incorporate my interests in Jewish learning with skills in counseling and facilitation…bringing a deep sense of spirituality to study. The courses I’ve offered on spirituality, Mussar, prayer, and more have reinforced the fact that deep connections can change us and make us the better for the experience.   

I am willing to go where this new venture, with God’s guidance, will take me and I’m introducing you to “Inner Judaism”. Please let me know what you think, I am always interested in hearing from you – ruthschapira@gmail.com 

 


A corona Yom Kippur

 

If you would have asked me what words come to mind when I think about Yom Kippur, the word joy would never have made the top ten list.

Words like fasting, repenting, remorse, prayer, sorrow, self-blame, and even hunger would have been there, but never joy or happiness.

Why was this year different for me?

Perhaps in my own home, the solitude created the ripe environment for a deeper experience and I soaked it all in.

In this year of corona, I almost desperately needed to focus more intensely on my relationship to HaShem without distraction. I poured my heart out without wondering what others were thinking and for me, it was a unique type of grace that was afforded me.

I could daven (pray), as fervently as I wanted, with movements, chanting and song, being at one with the rhythm of my supplications.  I didn’t have to worry if my voice was too loud or off-key.

And then there it was. A sense of elation filled me up just before and during Neilah, (the closing prayer of Yom Kippur) and this experience was new. My feeling of joy was palpable.

For the first time I grasped emotionally what some sages refer to as a state of purity after being cleansed of sins.

I had a clean slate, and all the ways in which I came up short last year were magically wiped away. My struggles in trying to be a better person, often ending in disappointment in myself, were in the past.

Those struggles are not going away, and the challenges might even be greater for me in the coming year, but I have a new beginning. I am refreshed and feel stronger to wrestle again. I can be the director of a new script, and this time the outcome can change.

Like being subjected to a heavenly sanitizing spray and really good wipes, my soul would be sparkly and new.

More importantly, I would be able to forgive myself since God has hopefully, forgiven me.

While of course, my deepest desire is that we reconvene as community, I am grateful this experience of isolation gave me a new vision of Yom Kippur.

 

 

 

 

 

 


I needed to make the first move

It was not hard to take a back seat to my own spiritual growth.

As a youngster, I dutifully attended High Holiday services but felt that it was a pretty boring endeavor. The overwhelming feeling of formality blocked any emotional response on my part. The hazzan (cantor) chanted in an operatic voice, sometimes so dramatically, that it was actually jarring.

Synagogue was an ‘event’ that I was attending. There were all the trappings of a Broadway show: everyone was dressed up, there were ‘ticket takers’, ushers, and even assigned seats. Eyes faced front, and of course there was no talking or stirring.

Reading the list of sins that everyone was asking forgiveness for, did not apply to me. I knew that I didn’t steal or commit any major crimes, so I was even disconnected from my purpose in being there.

As I got older, things did not change too much and I can’t say that I matured spiritually. Again, I was hoping to “feel something” from just sitting in synagogue.  After all, I was where I was supposed to be, doing what God seemed to expect of me by fulfilling my part of the equation. I am not sure if I felt a sense of awe though what I did feel was a measure of comfort in listening to familiar melodies.

No one taught me enough about the prayers or their purpose for me to gain any meaning out of the experience. Sure, I knew how to repeat some of the words but never learned what they meant or their relevance to my life. No one talked about a relationship with God. “He” was there, I was here. That was that.

I don’t blame my Hebrew school or teachers, because really, was it possible to learn all that much in a six-hour a week enterprise?

I intended this to be a short post so I will cut to the part that had the most impact on me. It was learning that I was in charge of my own experience. I know that seems obvious, but it took me awhile to understand that I had to make the first move. God was interested in an ongoing relationship, not in my trying to connect in a one time event.

No service was going to ‘make me more spiritual’ or help me feel connected to the Jewish community. There is a deep and rich experience that is at the core of communal prayer. But I didn’t experience that, not then. I needed to make the effort to reach out and go beyond my self, my ego. How engaged I would be was my responsibility.

So I started to study and to learn. I’m still learning. I also needed to be comfortable with bringing God into my life.

As it turns out, that’s what is supposed to happen:

קָרוב ה’ לְכָל קרְאָיו. לְכל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת:

Karov Ado’shem L’chol Kar’av. L’chol Asher Yikr’u B’emet.

God is close to all who call out [to God] —to all who call with sincerity. [P’sukei D’zimra, Ashrei]

For sure, there are tools we can use to help us focus our thoughts and be present, and I will share some of those in future posts.

Learning about prayer is a helpful prerequisite. Knowing Hebrew is an asset, but for now, pre-Rosh Hashanah, call out to the One who needs to know you’re there.

 

 


If you are interested in pursuing any of the ideas above or other engagement strategies, please connect with me [ruthschapira.com].


The True Jewish Meaning of Love

This is a new experience for me, responding to a reader request!  After reading a post on Gratitude, I was asked to write about Love.

Even though writing through a Hebrew/Jewish lens is naturally limiting, “Love” as a subject is so encompassing and elusive that we will need to narrow in even more.

Our focus here will be on love in a committed relationship.

Love in Parallel Terms

When speaking about concepts in Judaism, scholars recommend beginning at the source where it first appears in the Torah.

We won’t get much past that, but it will be a start.

At the outset, we will need to unpack Judaism’s view of what is foundational within the relationship between a husband and wife. We will actually be taking the idea of love out for now. [gendered language is used here as it is in the sources].

Here is how the Bible describes the relationship between Adam and Eve in Genesis/B’reisheet (2:18) 

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃

The usual translation is “The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a help mate“.

Note that two words are used to describe the relationship, often translated as one word, ‘helper’.

We will focus on the Hebrew root word for ‘mate’, נגד [Nun, Gimmel, Daled], which technically means “opposite” or “parallel” or “in front of”.

Translating the word exactly, the English meaning would be:  “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a helper opposite him“.

How can this be? Isn’t that a paradox? Wouldn’t someone trying to help you be on your side? How can a helper be in opposition to you?

Yet, this translation offers such a rich insight into the nature of what love really represents, especially in a committed relationship.

What Love Really Means

Here, the deeper meaning is that when you’re in a committed relationship that person really gets to know you, understands your ways, and often needs to be that force that, while seeming to oppose you, really brings you to your more complete self.

Because that person loves you, and knows what you are truly capable of, they can often stand up to you, demanding that you be your best. That is true love. Risking momentary displeasure from you to achieve a higher goal.

Our sages expand on this further in the Talmud (Yevamot 63a):

” A help meet (sic) for him — (כנגדו literally, opposite, opposed to him) If he is worthy she shall be a help to him; if he is unworthy she shall be opposed to him, to fight him”.

The sources add: “whenever one confronts someone of equal power, moral and ethical weight, such a confrontation is termed נגד. It is a head-on collision of will.”

Two Become One

Despite the obstacles of will, the relationship is so intimate that two people should become extremely close—so that your needs become the other person’s needs, your wants, their wants. Your desire, theirs:

“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife so that they shall become as one flesh.[Genesis/B’reisheet 2:24]. Two halves work at becoming whole.

עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזָב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד׃

The word used for ‘cling’ here is the same root word that is often used in describing our relationship with God (d’veykut).

That is how Judaism sees love. Not as an infatuation, or romance, but as a deep commitment to each other.

That leads us to the first place in the Torah where we read of a sexual relationship between Adam and Eve.

Biblical Intimacy

In biblical Hebrew, when a man and a women connect on an intimate level, it is not called love. The word used is Da’at, meaning knowledge  דעת [Daled, Ayin, Tav], so perhaps the term “carnal knowledge” would be a more accurate translation.

“Adam knew Eve, his wife”:  וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ  Genesis/B’reisheet (4:1)

Knowledge implies a complete and deep understanding of your mate. Deep feelings of appreciation as well as one’s intellect are taken into account. True love involves a deep connection that is not a passing infatuation. It also brings up a quality of the infinite, inner knowledge of a soul knowing another soul.

Is Your Ego at Work?

Notions like “falling in love”, “love at first sight” and “love is blind” do not hold true in the Jewish concept of love.  There is no word in the Bible for romance. In modern Hebrew, the word is “romantika”, certainly not based on Hebrew root words or letters, and interestingly, the word for infatuation is “Ahava Iveret”  אַהֲבָה עִוֶרֶת  — and wouldn’t you know it, Ahava means love, while “Iveret” means skin, what one might call “surface lust”.

Infatuation, lust, passion is more about your ego than the other person. The focus is on what you can get out of the relationship, not what you can give.

The root word for Ahava, [Hey,Vet] הב , the Aramaic meaning of “to give”.

What Quality of Love Do You Seek?

The Jewish notion of love is counter cultural. Counter to all the novels spilling romance, movies that portray “love at first sight” and songs that might even demean a relationship down to its animalistic passions.
Your inclination might tell you something different. Follow your heart in this matter. Listen to your Jewish soul.

 

 

 

 


Elul: The vanity of individualism

 

“..the more enamored we are of our selves, the more fixed we are in our own ‘realities’, limiting the possibilities of our awareness.” Daniel Brown, Harvard clinical psychologist

Our culture is so far deep into self aggrandizement that sometimes we lose awareness of how susceptible to the craziness we’ve become. It takes a lot of mental energy to steer clear of the ego-filled information we hear on a daily basis.

Even if we are not participating, it seeps into us on a deeper level than we might think.

A natural break from the noise

The rhythm of the Jewish calendar offers us a reprieve. As we come into the month of Elul we have breathing space to consider our true selves and who we want to be.

Only when we establish our connection to the Divine and admit our place in the world can we begin to undergo a spiritual reckoning.

In acknowledging The One, we are forced to limit our own deception at being in charge all the time.

Why is this important now?

As we enter the month of Elul, we have an opportunity to straddle time. It is an amazing gift that we have…to simultaneously look back on the past 11 months of the year while preparing ourselves to greet the New Year on Rosh Hashanah.

It is an incredible time for the hard work of honest self-reflection. How can we truly engage in the liturgy of the High Holidays without first asking ourselves the deep questions we need to ask?

What promises did I make last year that were not kept? In what ways did I deepen my connection to loved ones and my community? Did I fulfill my goals for myself? Was I a better person this year than I was last year? Did I deepen my relationship with God? 

Our connection to God

Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. The mystical meaning of Elul’s acronym Aleph-Lamed-Vov-Lamed is for “Ani L’dodi, V’dodi Li”, the words meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).

It is a hesed, kindness from God that there is this closeness because we need the unconditional love of our Creator when we take a hard look at ourselves, without our defenses, without excuses, and with a pure heart to confront our dark side.

Our selfish tendencies

The dark side doesn’t always mean that we sublimate our urge to commit an evil act. After all, how common is it that that we set out to steal or commit a crime?

So we shouldn’t give ourselves credit for not engaging in those behaviors.

The Yetzer HaRa [the Hebrew term for this inclination] can mean our tendency to act in our own self-interest. That is more pernicious and confronts us almost every day. This dark side, our Yetzer HaRa is our ego, is our selfishness that hides right under the surface.

Sleeping late. Making sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Putting off acts of kindness. Constantly checking our “likes” on social media. Honking the horn excessively to rid ourselves of anger. Refusing to apologize properly. Neglecting to show appreciation.

These are all products of our ego.

Taking a habitual approach

It is overwhelming to work on everything about ourselves that we might want to change. Studies about personal change agree that taking on too many changes at once does not increase the chances for success. Nor will it contribute to positive self-esteem (not to be confused with ego).

Thousands of years ago, Rambam wrote about a method for increasing generosity. Briefly, instead of giving one check for $100, he advised to donate $1 a day since in this way, you would be incorporating a new behavior and making it a habit.

Select just one trait of yours to work on. Is it patience? Honesty? Anger?

Then select just one very small behavior change that you will do regularly in order to create a new habit in this month of Elul.

So for example, if you want to work on patience, think of a strategy to employ when you are most likely to lose it. It could be switching your thoughts to gratitude (waiting in line? Be grateful that you are able to purchase the items in your cart).

Are you about to lose your temper with someone you love? Think of your history together and let kindness fill you up instead. Or take a breath. Whatever will work for you.

Allow some time for this

It might take some practice to come up with which trait to focus on and the strategies to use. Be patient with yourself.

If you need help with focusing on what trait to work on, ask loved ones. They’ll usually have no problem offering you some options! It takes guts to do this work. It is not easy.

You also may need ways to remind yourself of the new practices you are undertaking. Try setting up reminders with Siri, Alexa, or some other platform. You can also try post-it notes.

But it will work. Do it regularly and enjoy this wonderful opportunity that Elul affords us to work towards a clean slate with loving acceptance by Hashem.


Postscript: What I described above is the work of Mussar, ancient Jewish practices that work on changing traits, increasing connections with God, and becoming a better person, which I will describe in future posts and perhaps offer in online sessions. 


The Secret Hebrew Meaning of Gratitude

The Joy of Gratitude

Hebrew is a language with deep meanings that go way beyond an outer definition, and to understand foundational concepts, some words are best understood in Hebrew.

Gratitude is one of them.

There are several terms for the experience of being grateful.       [To continue reading on Inner Judaism, click here]

Being Aware of the Good

The most common modern Hebrew expression is HaKarat HaTov which exactly means ‘Recognizing the Good’.

So, before you even decide to be grateful, you have to begin to be aware of the good as a necessary first step.

What are you grateful for? You can begin at the source, your very breath, and travel outwards from there—a sense of appreciation for your bodily functions (there are blessings for that) and your health, for your family and friends, for your shelter, for your job/interests/passions—it is an endless list.

Being aware can mean that before you taste that delicious cup of coffee, you spend just a few seconds experiencing a sense of gratitude for all the effort that went into allowing you to take that first sip.

It is an appreciation of the experience beyond the experience.

Many spiritual practices in Judaism begin with the quality of gratitude. Why?

Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice

The expression Hakarat HaTov does not exist in Biblical Hebrew. There, the term for thanksgiving/gratitude is Hodah/Todah/Hoda’ah/Modeh all from the root letters of the word Vov, Daled, Hei. 

The beautiful thing is that this root word means thanksgiving and also to acknowledge, to admit. 

In this way, in order to properly show thanks to someone, you have to first admit that they did something for you. You need to acknowledge that it was not you who caused the thing that you are thankful for, it is them.

Similarly, in thanking God, we admit that we are not the ‘be all and end all’ of our existence. It is God to whom we show appreciation.

This takes a measure of humility. It takes having a certain amount of humility to recognize the many gifts that you enjoy in even a single day, an hour, a moment.

If you try this practice, you might begin to sense that you are occupying a bigger place than the one you’re in. You might become aware that there is a greater Unifier at work here.

You might sneak a peak at a spiritual sense of the universe.

Are you stealing?

Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa, in the Talmud (Berachot 35b) offers strong words for those who go through life without recognizing the good in their lives:

Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he stole from God and the community of Israel. 

What does a lack of gratitude mean and how are you stealing?

Is it more difficult for thieves to steal from those they know or those they don’t know? Once there is a relationship, how can you deprive that person of something?

Is it not often the case that when a person steals, there is an abject denial of who or what they are stealing from? It is this denial that allows them to engage in stealing over and over again.

When you acknowledge the source of your blessings, you can’t be stealing.

And once you are aware of God in the world, how can you ignore the gifts you’ve been given?

Having a sense of this appreciation and gratitude is so important that it is considered foundational to our sages.

This is one quality that will remain

“…In the time to come………..all prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled. Vayikra Rabbah 9:7


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