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

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