Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In Honor of Tu b'Shvat

A conversation last night finally highlighted the heart of hashkafic machloket between myself and a friend. I may examine those difference another time but for now I want to explore one of the thoughts that inform my hashkafa and perspective.

There is a disparity between the western (predominantly Christian) idea of spirituality and the Jewish approach to spirituality which can be illustrated by examining the differences between the words prayer and the hebrew word תפילה “tefilah.” Prayer is defined by webster as “an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought.” If one were to visually represent someone at prayer the image would be of one gazing up, arms outstretched reaching heavenward. Tefilah, while the hebrew word used to translate prayer means something different. Tefilah derives from the root letter pey-lamed-lamed and the word להתפלל - lehitpalel a word in the reflexive which means to judge oneself. While our prayers are directed towards the Creator the first step in the process is self reflection and introspection - looking within oneself. This is not an interpretation of the word but the meaning of the word itself! In contrast to the expansive stance of one at “prayer” a visual representation of one engaged in tefilah would be of one cloaked in a tallit, arms closed in, hands near the heart, head lowered to the chest. Noting the Christian influences that we grew up with the seemingly obvious place to seek out G-d would be in the highest physical places - the holiest place of worship, church or synagogue, the highest mountain. Judaism counters that even looking for a place misses the point of tefillah. Seeking internally within oneself and looking deeper in beseeching G-d is what drives prayer. The physical surroundings of a person come second to the state of the person himself.

Delving deeper and looking inward is an idea that is permeated throughout Judaism. Mount Sinai, the midrash says, was not the tallest mountain in the wilderness, rather chazal emphasize Sinai was a rather small mountain and while all the taller mountains vied to have the torah given on them, G-d granted the honor to Sinai the small and humble among them. In psalms King David writes ”מִמַּעֲמַקִּים קְרָאתִיךָ יְהוָה.” from the depths I have called you. King David who is described as one of G-ds closest servants sought out G-d not from on high but from the valley, from the depths. Psalms also describes David’s Jerusalem ”יְרוּשָׁלִַם-- הָרִים, סָבִיב לָהּ וַיהוָה, סָבִיב לְעַמּוֹ-- מֵעַתָּה, וְעַד-עוֹלָם” “Jerusalem, surrounded by mountains and G-d surrounds his people from now and forever.” Perhaps medieval crusaders assumed this verse was merely a metaphor for G-d’s protection of Israel for they incorrectly mapped out the ancient city atop the hill we today call “mount zion.” However, modern archaeological findings place David’s city to the east of the present day walled old city in an area known as silwan - a low valley. This lends insight to our earlier image of King David calling from the “amakim” from the valley, physically he implored G-d from the City of David in the valley to the east of Mount Moriah. When one stands at the bottom and looks up, like tehilim say, you are in fact surrounded by mountains. Judaism is replete with images and stories of spirituality emanating not from up-high but from the depths. Rain may come from the heavens, but this is not the water source that the Torah is compared to. The spirituality of the Torah is likened to a deep spring.

The message I glean from this is to look beyond the surface. This is a message especially appropriate for tu b’shvat. Today we celebrate a holiday that in contrast to the holidays in the Torah and even the Rabbinic holidays of purim and chanukah did not exist thousands of years ago. While the mishna mentions tu b’shvat in a purely halachic context to determine the new year for the purpose of calculating agricultural processes, it was not celebrated as a holiday. Tu b’shvat is a day adopted much later by the kabalists and emphasizes this idea of seeking out G-d beyond the surface. Tu b’shvat is the holiday celebrating the fruit of the tree. However it doesn’t take a botanist to recognize that this time of year trees do not bear fruit. What were the kabalists celebrating? The kabalists were illustrating an important aspect of emunah - faith in G-d. Although presently we do not see the bounty G-d provides us it is merely resting below the ground, underneath the surface. Grasses will soon burst forth from the soil, blossoms will open in a symphonic explosion of color, tree branches will be weighed down heavy with ripe fruit. Just because we don’t see trees laden with fruit does not mean the trees have ceased to produce fruit, they are merely undergoing the process to bring it forth. Recognizing this process in the natural world we can apply it to other parts of our lives as well. We can appreciate G-d working where we can’t see him but knowing in full faith that His goodness, like a plant waiting to sprout, is on the way.

יָשִׂישׂוּ וְיִשְׂמְחוּ, בְּךָ-- כָּל-מְבַקְשֶׁיךָ:

Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad - psalms, 40

Monday, January 21, 2008

Thoughts on our current state of affairs and Shmitta

A friends post finally gave me the push I needed to write that note I’ve been rolling over in my mind for a few weeks now.

I think I should start with the following. I increasingly find that I approach life - politics, history etc. - through a G-d conscious lens. I sometimes worry that this lens blurs my message and makes it difficult for others to relate. Perhaps. But, I guess everyone runs the risk of being misunderstood.

With this in mind I turn to our current political situation. The term “leaders” is used in the loosest sense when speaking of our current Israeli government sneaking through the back door at Annapolis...with Olmert speaking to the President in way that prompted John Stewart on the Daily Show to ask: “I wonder if Bush's ass is kosher?” Bush, a supposedly G-d fearing man, calls for the division of Jerusalem and the founding of a Palestinian state on land G-d promised to the Jewish People. Sderot is under siege and the world doesn’t blink on eye but bemoans the fate of Gazan residents who have seen the price of luxury commodities such as chocolate, cigarettes and Coke double and triple as a result of the evil Israeli embargo.

Some wonder “why is this happening, why are we in this mess?” A better question is “why is this happening, why are we in this mess now?”

This year is a shmitta year. We tend to think of shmitta purely in terms of agriculture - letting the land rest on the seventh year. But why do we let the land rest? To show that this land is not ours. The land is G-d’s. Just as “Shabbat hayom la’hashem” - “Shabbat is a day for G-d” so to the Sabbatical year. When the laws of shmitta are dismissed there are consequences as set forth in mesechet Shabbat (33a) “Because of the sins of idolatry, illicit sexual relations, and murder and the abrogation of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, exile is brought to the world and they [Israel] are exiled.” And so the Temple was destroyed on a shmitta year and the number of years of the first exile corresponds to the number of shmitta years we failed to observe when we came to Israel the first time around.

We live in a time where many of us are not only witness to the Jewish peoples prophetic return to Zion but we ARE the Jews returning to Zion! In this age of return current events parallel those that transpired centuries ago. Sometimes we forget that this Land belongs not to us but to G-d and every seven years shmitta comes along to remind us. Our grasp on our promised land is tenuous and shaky at best and with every passing shmitta year this point is driven home. G-d puts it in our hands to determine how much of our land we continue to hold. Therefor, 2007-2008 is a shmitta year and the world is calling for the Jewish state to relinquish its claim on Jerusalem and our biblical heartland in Judea and Samaria. 2000-2001 - post camp david when the Israeli government offered Jerusalem to the arabs and was followed by the outbreak of the intifada - was a shmitta year. 1986-1987 the outbreak of the first intifada was a shmitta year. 1979-1980 the signing of the peace treaty between egypt and israel that ultimately lead to the evacuation of Sinai and the destruction of Yamit was a shmitta year…. sensing a pattern? All the players are in place should we not do our utmost to follow the shmitta year. It is not a coincidence that this year is the last of Bush’s presidency and the US is heading towards elections. It’s not “stam” that Jerusalem is on the table. G-d promised this land to the Jews and during shmitta we are forced to grapple with that responsibility and assert our claim on the Land of Israel. Only time will tell the outcome of this shmitta year.

This year with the majority of the Jewish people residing outside of the Land (although those numbers are slowly shifting...) shmitta remains a rabbinical obligation. May we merit to observe the coming shmitta year as a torah obligation among a whole and united people in a complete Eretz Yisrael crowned with our rebuilt Temple.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

"how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?"

I woke up in Jerusalem this morning to a a grey and gloomy sky, a color and tone that seemed to reflect the mood of the city bracing for the havoc to be wrought by Bush's visit.

Where four years ago the, in the face of the disengagement plan the city was electric with protests now with the thought of a divided Jerusalem looming before us despondence has overcome defiance.

Thankfully I wrapped up shacharit this morning with "shir shel yom" and in light of todays events I found new relevance in the perek. I couldn't have found more appropriate words to get me through the day.

The pesukim reinforced what I know to be true. Just as the wicked will always rise up to harm the Jewish people and rebel against G-d, so to hashem will never forsake us.

yibane hamikdash ir tziyon temaleh v'sham nashir shir chadash uv'rnana na'aleh!!

may we merit to see the building of the temple, and sing a new song as we ascend har habayit just as we merit to see Jerusalem filling up - especially knowing that WE are in fact the ones filling it up!

...how appropriate that simcha chose that song to open up every taping of Tuesday Night Live!! http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=6764413995

chazak v'ametz.

יבנה המקדש, עיר ציון תמלא, ושם נשיר שיר חדש, וברננה נעלה

Psalms Chapter 94

1 O LORD, Thou God to whom vengeance belongeth, Thou God to whom vengeance belongeth, shine forth.
2 Lift up Thyself, Thou Judge of the earth; render to the proud their recompense.
3 LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?
4 They gush out, they speak arrogancy; all the workers of iniquity bear themselves loftily.
5 They crush Thy people, O LORD, and afflict Thy heritage.
6 They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless.
7 And they say: 'The LORD will not see, neither will the God of Jacob give heed.'
8 Consider, ye brutish among the people; and ye fools, when will ye understand?
9 He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye, shall He not see?
10 He that instructeth nations, shall not He correct? even He that teacheth man knowledge?
11 The LORD knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity.
12 Happy is the man whom Thou instructest, O LORD, and teachest out of Thy law;
13 That Thou mayest give him rest from the days of evil, until the pit be digged for the wicked.
14 For the LORD will not cast off His people, neither will He forsake His inheritance.
15 For right shall return unto justice, and all the upright in heart shall follow it.

16 Who will rise up for me against the evil-doers? Who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity?
17 Unless the LORD had been my help, my soul had soon dwelt in silence.
18 If I say: 'My foot slippeth', Thy mercy, O LORD, holdeth me up.
19 When my cares are many within me, Thy comforts delight my soul.
20 Shall the seat of wickedness have fellowship with Thee, which frameth mischief by statute?
21 They gather themselves together against the soul of the righteous, and condemn innocent blood.
22 But the LORD hath been my high tower, and my God the rock of my refuge.
23 And He hath brought upon them their own iniquity, and will cut them off in their own evil; {N}
the LORD our God will cut them off. {P}

תהילים פרק צד

א אֵל-נְקָמוֹת יְהוָה; אֵל נְקָמוֹת הוֹפִיעַ.
ב הִנָּשֵׂא, שֹׁפֵט הָאָרֶץ; הָשֵׁב גְּמוּל, עַל-גֵּאִים.
ג עַד-מָתַי רְשָׁעִים יְהוָה: עַד-מָתַי, רְשָׁעִים יַעֲלֹזוּ.
ד יַבִּיעוּ יְדַבְּרוּ עָתָק; יִתְאַמְּרוּ, כָּל-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן.
ה עַמְּךָ יְהוָה יְדַכְּאוּ; וְנַחֲלָתְךָ יְעַנּוּ.
ו אַלְמָנָה וְגֵר יַהֲרֹגוּ; וִיתוֹמִים יְרַצֵּחוּ.
ז וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֹא יִרְאֶה-יָּהּ; וְלֹא-יָבִין, אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב.
ח בִּינוּ, בֹּעֲרִים בָּעָם; וּכְסִילִים, מָתַי תַּשְׂכִּילוּ.
ט הֲנֹטַע אֹזֶן, הֲלֹא יִשְׁמָע; אִם-יֹצֵר עַיִן, הֲלֹא יַבִּיט.
י הֲיֹסֵר גּוֹיִם, הֲלֹא יוֹכִיחַ: הַמְלַמֵּד אָדָם דָּעַת.
יא יְהוָה--יֹדֵעַ, מַחְשְׁבוֹת אָדָם: כִּי-הֵמָּה הָבֶל.
יב אַשְׁרֵי, הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר-תְּיַסְּרֶנּוּ יָּהּ; וּמִתּוֹרָתְךָ תְלַמְּדֶנּוּ.
יג לְהַשְׁקִיט לוֹ, מִימֵי רָע-- עַד יִכָּרֶה לָרָשָׁע שָׁחַת.
יד כִּי, לֹא-יִטֹּשׁ יְהוָה עַמּוֹ; וְנַחֲלָתוֹ, לֹא יַעֲזֹב.
טו כִּי-עַד-צֶדֶק, יָשׁוּב מִשְׁפָּט; וְאַחֲרָיו, כָּל-יִשְׁרֵי-לֵב.
טז מִי-יָקוּם לִי, עִם-מְרֵעִים; מִי-יִתְיַצֵּב לִי, עִם-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן.
יז לוּלֵי יְהוָה, עֶזְרָתָה לִּי-- כִּמְעַט, שָׁכְנָה דוּמָה נַפְשִׁי.
יח אִם-אָמַרְתִּי, מָטָה רַגְלִי; חַסְדְּךָ יְהוָה, יִסְעָדֵנִי.
יט בְּרֹב שַׂרְעַפַּי בְּקִרְבִּי-- תַּנְחוּמֶיךָ, יְשַׁעַשְׁעוּ נַפְשִׁי.
כ הַיְחָבְרְךָ, כִּסֵּא הַוּוֹת; יֹצֵר עָמָל עֲלֵי-חֹק.
כא יָגוֹדּוּ, עַל-נֶפֶשׁ צַדִּיק; וְדָם נָקִי יַרְשִׁיעוּ.
כב וַיְהִי יְהוָה לִי לְמִשְׂגָּב; וֵאלֹהַי, לְצוּר מַחְסִי.
כג וַיָּשֶׁב עֲלֵיהֶם, אֶת אוֹנָם-- וּבְרָעָתָם יַצְמִיתֵם;
יַצְמִיתֵם, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ.

sources from www.mechon-mamre.org