Tag Archives: Jewish Spirituality

The Hidden Meaning of Responsibility

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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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Blessings and the Small “i” in Gratitude

 

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:

” אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃”

“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. 


Much appreciation to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of God was in this place and I, i did not know where I first encountered ideas about the small “i” with its many interpretations and meanings.


What is a mitzvah, really?

 

Mitzvah.

Good deed? Commandment?

You might be most familiar with the word mitzvah as it appears in Bar or Bat Mitzvah which is usually translated as a son or daughter of the commandment.

Or, you might translate the word mitzvah as “good deed”, as in “I did a mitzvah today”.

There is not a thing wrong with those meanings, but let us delve a little deeper into the matter.

First, there is not one place in the Torah (in Hebrew) that the phrase Ten Commandments appears. Not one. You will not find Aseret haMitzvot anywhere.

For purposes of expedient comprehension, we have mistranslated the Torah’s phrase for the Ten Commandments. In Hebrew the phrase that occurs in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 is Aseret haDevarim  meaning the Ten Utterances/Articulations/Words.

This fact alone opens up all kinds of possibilities for the content. The deeper concept is that the Aseret haDibrot serve as categories for the 613 mitzvot. So we are not solely obligated to fulfill the Ten Commandments…as in “I’m not doing so badly, at least I’m following [most of] the Ten Commandments”.

Our involvement in fulfilling our purpose here goes beyond the ten. There are mitzvot that cover many areas of life.

This post is not about that.

Nor is it about the details as to why these statements are more commonly referred to as Aseret haDibrot and not Aseret haDevarim (there is more about the word devarim here, or you can click here to read a discussion about the usage of dibrot versus devarim).

This post is about the word mitzvah מצוה with shades of meaning that offer us a better understanding of why we do mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) in the first place.

It is very challenging to understand the deeper messages embedded in the Torah without a grasp of Hebrew. So in exploring the Hebrew, we will gain insight into the meaning of mitzvah.

Every word in Hebrew can be distilled to a two or three letter root word.

The two letter root word for mitzvah is tzav  צו (tzadee, vav) meaning a decree, a directive, an order, a command. So far that confirms what we know. However, the verb form mitzah (mem, tzadee, hey), has spiritual significance for us and goes beyond that meaning. Mitzah means to use to the fullest extent, to squeeze and extract from, to drain.

In the Shema, when we say that we will love God to the fullest extent of our hearts and minds, body and soul, and our strength and drive….we can see the connection. Within our capacity, we need to be all in. To the fullest extent possible, we need to squeeze ourselves to the limit. We need to ask ourselves….am I doing what I need to do at my limit? Can I do more?

We need to fulfill mitzvot to have that ideal come to realization. The mitzvot are our connection to God in a complete way.

In mystical traditions, the idea is that you are placed here with the talent and ability to do a mitzvah beautifully. In addition to fulfilling other mitzvot, you were given the tools to sing your own song, to do what only you can do.

What is that mitzvah for you? What do you engage in that makes your heart sing? What are you doing that makes you lose all track of time? What feeds your soul?

How and in what ways can you turn that into a mitzvah?

Because that is what you are meant to do. You are especially gifted with certain talents to fulfill your purpose here.

 



Please comment below if you are interested in participating in an online group to help determine your own personal mitzvot.