In Deuteronomy (Devarim / 6:5) we are told “And love HaShem, your God, with all your heart, and with your entire being and with all your resources”* which is known by so many of us as the third line of the Shema.
The “And love” part might, at first, seem like a command. And (see below) that’s how most translations make it appear.
But if that’s so, how can we make sense out of being commanded to love?
Responsibility, Achrayut / אחריות is one of the character traits that a person focuses on while practicing Mussar and engaging in character and spiritual development. To appreciate its nuances, we can go right to the Hebrew for clarification of what is involved in this trait.
Let’s first look at the core letters of the word, which in Hebrew, is called the root, the shoresh. By examining the word’s core meaning, we avail ourselves of the rich meaning that goes beyond a dictionary definition. The three-letter root word consists of Aleph-Chet-Resh [A-CH-R] which can mean either Achar (After) or Acher (Other). Big deal you say? Well, yes, because embedded in the very words for Responsibility are clues to help us understand the Jewish foundation for this trait / middah.
So, let’s parse this out a bit, taking each meaning separately. Let’s interpret this concept of responsibility through the lens of Achar (After). We can be responsible to others after we take care of ourselves (think oxygen mask on an airplane). A well-known phrase from Leviticus / Vayikra (19:18) tells us to וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ / V’ahavta L’rayecha Kamocha
“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” which can be interpreted in several ways, one if which is that by loving and respecting yourself first, you will in fact be better able to care for someone else. In other words, you’ve worked on yourself enough, so you are able to love fully and therefore will be bringing (less) emotional baggage into the relationship. You are able to give fully, and love that person as a creation of God, when you, yourself, value yourself as being created in the Image of God.
Another interpretation of Achar (After) as part of responsibility is that we are entrusted with creating a better world for those who come after us. We are required to not just think of using up resources but working on replenishing them. Our task goes beyond ourselves to generations in the future.
What happens when we focus on the three-letter root word that can spell Acher (Other)? The meaning of this tells us that we need to be concerned about ‘the other’ in society. Those who are marginalized, the ones who are easily forgotten, those who are out of our daily sight yet need us to pay attention.
These are our challenges when we think of our responsibility. Do we prioritize our own needs first, as in Acharei / אחרי (After me —-which ironically is also part of the word אחריות ? Or do we concern ourselves with being activists, working on behalf of those who come Achar (After)? Do we focus on the immediate needs of the “other”, those who are mostly forgotten, as in “Acher” (The Other)? How do we juggle our responsibilities to ourselves and to others?
You already know, there is not one answer for all situations, for all times. What we’re being asked to do is bring this knowledge of responsibility, with all of its meaning to our effort to be more responsible. To be more fully human.
The sage Hillel, said it best in the most poetic way:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And when I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
(Foundational Ethics / Pirkei Avot 1:14
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The title of Dara Horn’s new book People Love Dead Jewsactually repulsed me, so I dismissed it as a book I that I probably wouldn’t read.
You see, I grew up with dead Jews. My parents, born in Poland, came to this country leaving behind remnants of what could have been robust family trees. My profound sense of loss at having no grandparents hit me at a young age and among those missing from my life were aunts, uncles, and many cousins who could have enriched my life greatly. Through the years, I resisted focusing on the loss — on so many who were not a part of my life. Doing that would have put me in such a dark place that I don’t think I could have escaped from easily.
So, I didn’t feel like immersing myself in that world, in reliving my losses. This book seemed to be a sardonic take on the death of tragic victims. Besides, we are not dead. People tried to kill us, over and over again. After all, it’s even a joke, ever since the comedian Alan King said: “a summary of every Jewish holiday is – they tried to kill us, we won—let’s eat”. But the inescapable fact is that we’re still here, and that is incredibly miraculous. We’re an ancient people who constantly resurrect themselves from the dead.
Still, as a Jewish educator, immersed in all things Jewish, I felt this gnawing obligation to search the book out. At least it would be for the purpose of learning what another writer besides Bari Weiss, had to say about antisemitism, in this post-Pittsburgh-Tree of Life-massacre era.
Searching for the book on Amazon, even the algorithm’s bot questioned my choice of words: “Did you mean people live dead Jews?” . After the book popped up and accepting the invitation to “look inside”, I was riveted after reading the first essay. It’s difficult to formally review this book because it entails navigating through potential spoilers and tiptoeing through stories of the familiar (e.g., Anne Frank, Ellis Island, Shakespeare) that will absolutely widen your eyes. You will also read stories that were intentionally buried under mounds of willful deception. Often, it will be painful to continue.
So many times, the emotions of disgust, helplessness, anger, and hopelessness took over, forcing me to put the book down, and it was often hard to pick up the book again. But due to my own stubbornness and an allegiance to peoplehood, I felt I owed it to yes, my dead ancestors, to read about how Jews, in so many different situations through the ages were robbed materially, physically, and spiritually, of living a normal and decent life.
Dara Horn is a painstaking researcher who removes any doubt you might have about the veracity of her stories. Her descriptions are so factually detailed, there leaves no room for any doubt about her accounts, which actually makes things harder to take. Whatever we thought before about the outrageous antisemitic acts that are part of our collective history….it’s actually worse than that.
Missing from Horn’s book are prescriptions for how to counter the whirlwind of hate detailed in essays like Dead Jews of the Desert and Blockbuster Dead Jews. For that, I would recommend grabbing a copy of Weiss’ book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”. The book that Dara Horn wrote is forpeeling away the blanketing layer of comfort we’ve been living under.
Now you are forewarned, but please, you must read this book. Some essays will turn your stomach, some might set you on a course of activism (I hope so). But you have to gain the knowledge that Horn is providing you. You probably won’t find these stories anywhere else, and you owe it to yourself and yes, your dead ancestors, to be informed.
Through the ages, we’ve been ‘going along to get along’, rowing merrily, thinking that by blending in, and even losing a sense of ourselves in the process, we’ll be armored from hate.
Both history and Dara Horn show us that it will not work and never has.
The rhythm of the Jewish calendar allows us to sense a deeper level of experience beyond the seasons. Soon we will be leaving the month of Av, which required us to face our national tragedies and mourn for what we lost. Entering Elul, we turn a period of the Jewish people mourning as a nation into a personal accounting for change. We are given the tools to remake ourselves.
Elul is a time expressly for soulful thinking about our true selves and who we want to be. Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. After the void of despair from the prior month and wondering where God was in all of our horrible losses, we find that we are in a different space entirely. God is with us, and we are hopeful. We can be renewed…. Read more about the secrets embedded in the Jewish calendarhere….
How does Judaism define Happiness? How do we differentiate between a feeling that is fleeting, and one that truly lingers and impacts our lives? Read more here, and subscribe on Inner Judaism to receive updates in your inbox.
Journaling is an incredible tool that I don’t use often enough.
I’m not sure why we resist the practice of journaling so much.
For me, it is still not so easy to face a blank page, even after journaling for many years.
Why is this so? Well, for one, the stark white surface stares at me with the boldest indignation muttering “Go ahead, I dare you…write what you really feel, and oh yes, try to keep it short please….”
The other thing that holds me back is the deeper, darker reason—confronting myself with the parts of me that I’d rather ignore. This seems like a compelling reason to postpone. Hey, if I don’t bring up any negative feelings they don’t exist, right?
Perhaps I also find it challenging because my practice is not very regular. I don’t do “morning pages” [the creative foundational tool promoted by Julia Cameron years ago] because I am always in a rush to get the day started and more often than not, writing ends up last on my list of ‘to-do’s’ in a day.
Another reason is that sometimes it feels so self-indulgent to take even more time to write after all the other practices I do on a daily basis. (really, how can people fit it all in??)
Yet when I do write, I feel accomplished in a precious indescribable way. It’s as if I’ve given voice to the unspeakable, to the deepest part of my soul. I am emboldened to have slayed the white page monster. I am a little more at peace. And I feel brave for looking at myself the way I know I need to.
There are very real benefits to this practice, and if learning about them will encourage you to write more, then read away here, and here, and even here.
You can start writing your thoughts spontaneously at any point in the day. Try just writing even one sentence at a time. Once you unlock that gate to your inner self, it will get used to the air and come forward more often.
Try any of these 7 Journaling tips to help you get started:
What you write is for you alone.
You don’t need a fancy journal book. A spiral bound notebook, or composition book (remember them?), or just some stapled pages will serve the purpose. On the other hand, you might choose to go in the opposite direction. Pick the most attractive book and writing implement if it will serve as an incentive for you.
This is not the place to worry about grammar or syntax (see #1).
You don’t even have to begin with words. You might try doodling at first, just to loosen up your creative brain. Or use pictures to represent a feeling or mood.
The next time you’re facing an issue, or a cross-roads, try ‘talking it through’ by writing.
Silence the “judgey” voice that tries to critique you at the outset. There is absolutely no wrong or right in this practice.
Even if nothing comes to you at first, you can begin writing “nothing is coming to me…” (guaranteed to work, let me know if it doesn’t).
Do you have a journaling practice? If so, can you share what it is? Your ideas can help others who are struggling, and we can struggle together. How about it? Offer your comments on InnerJudaism’s Facebook page.
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Tikkun Olam, תיקון עולם, literally “Repair the World” is a Jewish concept that barely needs definition. Showing up in many places, a form of these words is also recited at the end of the prayer “Aleinu”, the closing of many formal prayer services.
There, we speak of a future vision of wholeness and our ability, in the days to come, to repair the broken parts of our world within the majesty of the Source [le-taken olam b’malchut shaddai].
The message is that correcting the brokenness will not occur in isolation, but will be realized when we acknowledge our true spiritual connection with God. It is our job to bring out the sparks of holiness in our physical world.
How do we bring that idea down to the personal? In response, many people participate in “mitzvah days”, “days of service” and “Tikkun Olam” programs. We all look forward to the time when we can gather again to do this important work. But we can’t be on hold either. And when we really think about our responsibility to change the world, it can be overwhelming.
Judaism has your back. The word Tikkun appears as הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ in our sources and can be defined as “Repair Yourself” (also, prepare yourself). The change begins within, and that we can do now and all the time.
In Pirkei Avot [Foundational Ethics, 4:16], Rabbi Jacob says that our experience in this world is similar to our being in a corridor, a place to prepare ourselves for the next world, Olam HaBa.
A better world comes about by changing ourselves, by acting in the present moment. The actions we take might be minor, very small, but those actions ripple outwards.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement (a movement focused on ethical behavior) in the 19th century came to this conclusion:
“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. I discovered that I couldn’t change the town. So, as I grew older, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself….
Then I can make an impact on my family…and from that, our family could impact our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world!”*
The Gaon of Vilna, a century earlier, said “The ultimate purpose of learning Torah is to change your character”.
Changing ourselves can only happen when we become intimately aware of our actions. We often drift within the passing of our days, only realizing our stumbles when we’ve already fallen off the cliff of our relationships.
There are many practices, built into Judaism, that gift us with capturing moments of awareness. Becoming aware of moments before they flit away is possible through blessings, meditation, prayer, and engaging in mitzvot (commandments—there are many that don’t involve large groups)—you can choose what works for you. At their core, all involve a ‘living-in-the-present’ focus.
Ironically, when we hold onto the present in these ways, the future is within our reach. This Tikkun of Ourselves, הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ, can be the ripple that turns into a wave for Tikkun Olam תיקון עולם.
*This quote has been attributed to Rabbi Israel Salanter and also to The Chofetz Chaim. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate the exact source. Should someone have that, please share!
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Aren’t I the only one here? What’s this business about me, a soul and all this spirituality stuff?
There’s a lot of talk about soul (not the music kind). This buzz is being captured by Disney’s just-released blockbuster movie by the same name.
So, do you feel a little out of this whole loop? Defining the indefinable is a familiar challenge (it’s hard enough to think about God, right?).
Judaism has so many beautiful teachings about the soul, so let’s examine one small way of understanding our soul.
Is the you that is reading this the inner you? How do you become aware of your own actions? Do you rethink things, mull them over in you mind? Do you replay events over and over? Who is the “you” that is doing this? Well, it actually depends. We know there are several voices in our head….and it takes time to gain a refined ability to figure out who’s talking. There’s the ego, the body, the mind—all competing for a ticket to be in the front seat of your show.
Not to mention the poor little soul struggling to get its’ own voice heard. What a cacophony.
Our egos are talking to us all the time, wanting to pretend that they are our voice. Know how you can tell? The ego’s voice is not actually very nice, it’s the one saying things like: “You’re an imposter”, “You got to be kidding me, you think that you can do that?” “I want this thing…NOW”, “I need to stay in bed…” and a lot of other unsavory tidbits.
That voice is the cruel judge, the procrastinator, the incessant advice-giver, the one who lives in fear, the snide critic, the self-centered egotist, and any other image that you can conjure up that works for you. Identifying the voice as one that speaks out of Fear not Lovewill help.
In time, you’ll get to recognize these uninvited intrusive guests, which is the first step in muzzling them (notice I didn’t use the word silence…it’s likely that won’t happen).
Ultimately, you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. Your soul knows what is authentically true about you, but over time, as you can imagine, that voice gets hidden under a lot of other, well, garbage. Some spiritual teachers are more delicate…saying that ‘spiritual veils’ cover the purest part of ourselves, which is our soul.
One tool to be able to discern your authentic voice is to try out Rabbi Manis Friedman’s recommendation which makes things far more simpler. Just think of your soul as having two aspects which can serve as a more trusted guide.
Is your voice telling you to be Selfless or Selfish?
When you spend a little bit of time quieting down the noise, and start listening to the voice that needs your help, the selfless one, you should gain better footing.
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.
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Please forward to others who might be interested, thanks!
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.
When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.
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?
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.
Gratitude is being present in order to experience awe
When we are truly present we experience something riveting. The timeless nature of the moment and the fleeting quality of time are simultaneously in our awareness, and in that, we experience a sense of awe. Our recognition of the Creator, the One who binds everything together, often moves us to mark the moment with a blessing.
When we say a blessing, we’re not blessing God. God does not ‘need’ our blessing, we need to bless. In participating in the act of recognition/blessing, we are acknowledging that God is the Source. The act of blessing, a form of gratitude, is supposed to change us.
Blessing arouses the part within us that yearns for connection on a deeper level
Saying a blessing awakens our desire to connect with the Source. During the Amidah (silent prayer), the beautiful opportunity to express our gratitude comes before the conclusion and is known as “Modim Anachnu Lach”. Here is a portion:
We are grateful to you as we recount your praises, for our lives are entrusted in your hand, and our souls are in your safekeeping–for your miracles that are with us every day, and for your wonders and good works that are with us at all times: evening, morning, and midday.
The term for Gratitude in Hebrew involves more than just a definition, it is part of who we are as a people (we are Yehudim, Jews, from the root word to thank).
There is a gift in knowing that we don’t take life for granted and as we pull our egos aside we allow ourselves to recognize the greatness of the moment. That very pulling away is alluded to in the parsha of Vayetzei, when Jacob dreams of Messengers/Angels going up and down a ladder to the heavens. God grants him an enormous and generous blessing. Jacob, upon awakening says:
“Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I, I did not know!”
It is a sudden awareness of God’s presence in the universe and as if to wake us up to that moment, there is an extra “I” [וְאָנֹכִ֖י] in the text that is not necessary, since yadati [יָדָֽעְתִּי ] already means “I did not know”. What is the purpose of the additional “I”? What about our own selves prevents us from recognizing the obvious, that God is in all places?
When we are filled with ego, there is no room for awe
There have been many interpretations* of this verse, but the one I relate to the most is from the school of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) that says the first “I” represents our being filled with ourselves, our own ego.
As the recipient of his father Isaac’s chosen blessing, favored over Esau, Jacob’s importance inflated. In that state, he was unable to envision the nature of God in the world. That is the “I” that didn’t know God.
HaMakom – The Place and Everyplace
At the end of the dream, Jacob is aware of God’s presence everywhere. Jacob refers to “Bamakom” [ בַּמָּק֖וֹם] meaning “in this place” and the word for place is used several verses earlier. Some commentators mention that it refers to Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, where Abraham took Isaac to be bound.
Rabban Gamliel, in times after the destruction of the Second Temple 70 C.E., noted that even God can be found in a bush, as in Moses’ vision. That idea, that God is All-Encompassing and Ever-Present is embedded in the term we use for one of the names of God, “HaMakom“. God was as close to Jacob, appearing in his heart and mind, and occupying all possible space.
May we all merit the opportunity to experience a sense of awe, expressing our gratitude to our Source with a blessing for being alive at this time.
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…]