Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Power of Your Prayer, Rather Than That of Intermediaries

A famous Chassidic story goes as follows:

A woman goes to a rabbi and asks her to pray for her family to lift them from poverty. The rabbi says, I will do so for the price of 10 rubles. A ruble was Russian currency, 10 of which in 1900 is worth around 2 thousand dollars today.

"10 rubles!" she exclaims. "I am asking for your help because I don't have any money."

"20 rubles then," says the rabbi.

"20 rubles! I don't have 1 ruble," she cries.

"30 rubles then," says the rabbi.

The woman cries out, "I cannot believe it. Such a price! Forget it. I'll pray myself."

"That's what I was hoping you'd say," said the rabbi. "You pray and I'll pray along with you for no charge at all."

The most potent prayers are those which come from the heart. God hears our cries and listen to those who speak to Him. You do not need an intermediary for those. The most import ingredient is a recognition of our dependence on God as the source of blessing. This recognition is an accomplishment. Our egos lead us to see ourselves as the source of our success. Recognition of our dependence constitutes a transcending of our egos. Our egos shrink, but our souls grow through prayer.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Story About Empathy

A couple had a sick child. The father went to the great Tzaddick (righteous person) Rebbe Yitzchok Verka for a blessing of health.

The Rebbe told the father there was nothing he could do. The father said he had heard that the Rebbe could work miracles. The Rebbe responded that the matter was in G-d’s hands and he could do nothing. The father boarded his wagon and left feeling dejected.

Suddenly, the Rebbe came running up behind him and exclaimed “I am sorry, I am sorry. I must apologize to you.”

“But I understand,” said the father. “The matter is in God’s hands.”

“Yes,” said the Rebbe. “But I must apologize for when I heard of your situation, I didn’t cry with you.”

The Rebbe hugged the man and they cried together.

When the man returned to his home, he found that the child had recovered.

The loneliness of life’s struggles can be as painful as the struggles themselves. A good friend rarely will solve one’s problems. But the good friend’s attentiveness and concern can ease one’s pain, thus freeing the mind to find solutions or strengthening the heart to carry on. Sometimes, the support of a friend will prompt Heaven to open the spiritual gates of healing and blessing.

The Sabbath

Often, as I write these essays, I get stuck trying to say too much in the precious little allocated web space here. There is so much to say on each of these subjects, and I fear I'd be cheating you by saying too little.  But such is the nature of communication. You can only say one thing at a time, particularly in analytic prose. Our minds handle one thing at a time. We are finite beings.

This is one reason why the Torah is so big. When we discuss God, we are facing the infinite. You need many words for such a task.

So I proceed with the caveat that I speak here but a tiny fraction of what can be spoken on these subjects. As I keep saying, I am just taking a shot.

The problem of choosing the right words to approach a big topic is especially prevalent with the Sabbath.  You can hardly find a bigger topic in Torah thought. Jewish life is built around the Sabbath and Torah thought comes back to it continuously.

In the first chapter of the Bible, the verses say that the Lord created the world in six days, rested on the seventh , and called the seventh "the Sabbath." 

Later in the Torah, God tells us that we too should rest on that day. The Talmud explains that this rest consist of several parts. One part is to desist from the kind of creative physical activity that was used to build the tabernacle in the desert. The tabernacle is symbolic of the world. By refraining from the same kinds of physical activity used to build it, we acknowledge the Lord as being the creator of it. I often think of this as follows: on the Sabbath, we lay off the kinds of physical work which were used to build the world. Yet, we see that the world goes on without our efforts. This demonstrates and honors the existence of a Creator.

Furthermore, by refraining from the same kinds of physical activity used to build the world, we separate ourselves from physicality in its fundamental state. This brings about and connects us to a spirituality that permeates the world on that day.

Some of these activities include lighting fires, building physical structures, weaving, and sowing seeds. During the construction of the tabernacle, fire was used to cook the dyes which were applied to sheep skins. The physical structure being built was the tabernacle itself. Woolen coverings were weaved. Seeds were sown to produce plants which were later converted into dyes. Each of these components to the tabernacle themselves offer symbolism which we will have to discuss at a later time.

The rest of the Sabbath also includes an avoidance of distinctly secular activity. Making business deals is inappropriate on that day. The Sabbath should be a day of higher spirituality. Business and making a living hold a very important place in spiritual life since we would starve without them. But they support spiritual life, they are not the essence of it. On the Sabbath, we try to push off the physical and focus on the spiritual. Business talk interferes with that.

By refraining from business, we demonstrate another very important principle as well. Our sustenance does not really flow from our work, it flows from the Lord. The plow, the wrench, the computer, our tools of work, lay idle for a day yet we continue to prosper. We work because it is good for us. It keeps us grounded and humble. We work also to test ourselves with the tempting thought that our labor is what produces our income.  But this is just an illusion. The Lord provides us with the sustenance appropriate for our respective souls. The work is a sort of cover up for that.

When the Jews marched through the Sinai desert after the exodus from Egypt, they ate from food provided directly from Heaven. This food appeared in the encampment each morning. On Friday, a double portion appeared. This double portion was meant for Friday and Saturday. It is the same with our sustenance. The Lord provides it every day. We have no need to work on the Sabbath since the Lord provides us our Sabbath day sustenance in advance. By not working, we acknowledge all of that.

So what's left. Well, the Sabbath becomes a day of study, prayer, contemplation, family, and community. We shut off the pagers and cell phones and try to focus on the higher things. The Sabbath forces us out of the rat race and situates us around people and books.

Some things to try:

Candle lighting - prior to the onset of the Sabbath, on Friday night before sunset, we light candles. These candles honor the day by giving light and adornment to the Sabbath dinner table. Additionally, the flame of the candle is symbolic of the soul. On the Sabbath, the soul is especially invigorated by the spirituality of the day.

Refraining from business. Rather, spend some time in contemplation, prayer, or study.

Spending time with loved ones.

Refraining from cooking or working in a garden. These are two of the physically creative labors performed in the tabernacle.


In the film Harold and Maude, Harold, the young protégé in the art of living of the elder Maude, asks Maude if she prays. "Pray? No. I communicate," she tells him. While her response hints of a polemic on traditional prayer, it need not necessarily be viewed as such. Communication is an important part of this thing we call prayer.

You'll hear scores of definitions of prayer. Some are quite hackneyed, which is problematic since prayer, as an activity of the heart, needs to stay fresh.

Prayer, as much as anything else, is communication with the Almighty. Throughout our busy school and work days, we try to solve our problems. We think, we talk, we analyze, we schlep, we save our pennies, we endeavor to have some fun. Success varies. Sometimes, we think we have made it and then find, as David Bowie sang, "that the taste is not so sweet."

The maze of life on this earth can overwhelm our limited minds and muscle. And then there's prayer.

With prayer, we speak to something that is above the imbroglio we call life. Imagine being given the opportunity to take counsel with the wisest and purest soul that ever lived. I'm talking about the truest holy man or holy woman. And I'm talking even about a holy man or holy woman that knows your life story and your innermost yearnings, your strengths and weakness.

Such would be a fragment of what you get with a conversation with God.

One may demur here, saying, "What kind of conversation do you have when only one person speaks?"

Well, for starters, think of it this way, "How rare is a conversation where the other party listens?"

In prayer, God listens to everything you have to say. He'll listen for as long as you speak and he'll listen even after you stop. And he responds too. But his responses are not audible. They occur through your insights, your ideas, and the providence in your life.

This is not to say that every thought in a person's head is the voice of G-d. But in the sum total of life, He is there, helping us with truths and ideas. Many of these result from our prayers.

The Lord answers with life. He speaks in the language of life, your life. It’s a booming voice.

I can't say definitively why the Lord works it this way. Perhaps, his vocal silence is part and parcel of the general invisibility with which He runs the world, testing us, and forcing us to grow.

I work with two guys who are particularly diligent and talented. I have noticed that I often work harder when they are not around. I find it easier to let them carry the load.

Our Father in Heaven has devised a system whereby He can force us to work by appearing absent and yet be stunningly present and involved throughout our labors. It’s quite a trick, as are many things Divine.

Prayer forces us to think about our lives, our goals, and spiritual matters.

Prayer is like Rogerian therapy, client-centered therapy, where the client by speaking on his or her own, with the support of the therapist, learns how to emote and to solve problems on their very own two feet.

The prayer of our forefathers was spontaneous. Yet, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each established a distinct, fixed time for prayer during the day and over the millennium their descendents (our ancestors) built a sizeable structure around them.  Some people enjoy this structure, some find frustration with it. Let’s discuss it a bit.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Sabbath Part II

“Let us greet the Sabbath for it is the source of blessing.”

“Come My Beloved”, Friday night prayers, Prayer book

"Come My Beloved", a prayer customarily sang on Friday night to welcome in the Sabbath, refers to the Sabbath as the source of blessing. What does this mean, the source of blessing?

As mentioned in the introductory essay on the Sabbath, I often think of Sabbath observance as a testimony of faith. All week long we work for sustenance. I go to the office and earn a paycheck or to the store and receive money from customers in exchange for my products or services. The impression is that my work brings my sustenance. On the Sabbath, we refrain from working. Store owners forego their income on that day and ambitious professionals stay at home while their colleagues get a bit more work done or forge another business connection at a golf outing. Earlier in this century, Sabbath observers often lost their jobs over their refusal to work on the Sabbath. In agrarian eras, the refrain from work on the Sabbath took on a broader meaning due to the closer connection of agrarian life to the prohibited categories of work. If I want fish, I reach into my refrigerator, even on the Sabbath. In the days of old, a person had to catch a fish and eat it fairly soon thereafter – trapping being a prohibited category of work. If they wanted fruit, they had to pluck it from a tree – another prohibited category of work.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century Germany, described the Sabbath work prohibitions as physically creative labor. They are derived from the work done to build the tabernacle in the desert. The tabernacle was the first temple, or house of monotheistic worship of God. It is considered a symbol of the world itself, which G-d inhabits to the extent we make it a suitable domicile for Him.

I recall hearing a mystical idea that the physically creative labor used in the construction of the tabernacle was also used for the creation of the world. As I can’t recall the source, I can’t vouch for the veracity of this idea. But one can derive its symbolic meaning from logic. If the tabernacle is a mini-world, and the thirty-nine categories of work were used to build the tabernacle, then the thirty-nine categories are somehow connected to the creation of the world.

The relevance of these concepts are as follows: The secular outlook is that our labor produces our sustenance. The physical produces the physical. The religious outlook is that the good Lord feeds us as David said, “The eyes of all look up to You, and You grant them their food in the right season.” (Psalm 145) By refraining from work on the Sabbath, we appear to be jeopardizing our sustenance. But this is not so if God is the source of our sustenance. Even on Tuesdays and Thursdays, our sustenance only appears to come from our labor and comes actually from Heaven. By refraining from work on the Sabbath and trusting that our overall sustenance will not decrease, we are testifying our faith in the spiritual origin of our sustenance, that all sustenance is a blessing from Heaven.

What a great boon to our lives is this outlook. No longer do I have to fear my boss or the economy. The Lord sustains me. I need look only to His kindly hand for my security. I don’t need to flatter, manipulate, or cajole men. I need only to be a good person, to follow the wholesome dictates of the Torah, which themselves are salubrious.

So we have tried to argue that the Lord is the source of blessing and that the Sabbath is a testimony of faith in the Lord. So how is the Sabbath the source of blessing, as we asked up front?

In the Standing Prayer, (the 18 benedictions), of Friday night services, we say that the Sabbath is “the purpose of the creation of heaven and earth”.  I’d like to propose that we weave together all of these ideas. Through our observance of the Sabbath, we testify our faith in God as the source of all blessing. By refraining from work for a day, we demonstrate that all sustenance results not from our work but from God for we continue to thrive despite our resting for a day. When we say the Sabbath is the purpose of the creation, we can take it to mean that our observance of the Sabbath is the purpose of the creation for our observance testifies that G-d is the source of blessing. This means that the purpose of the creation is that we see that God is the source of the creation. If this recognition is the purpose of blessing, then in fulfilling the purpose, we create a reason for the giving of additional blessing.  This comparable to a father who gives his son a water hose so that he can water the lawn. If he waters the lawn, verses splashing his sister, then there is reason to give him more water. If the purpose of blessing is to see that God is the source of blessing, then if we recognize God as the source, then there is every reason to give more blessing. Since Sabbath observance is a recognition of the Lord as the source of blessing, as I’ve tried to explain, then Sabbath observance is the  source of blessing or, rather, the chief conduit of the source of blessing, which is G-d.

So we see, Sabbath observance is not merely adherence to a dull set of archaic rules. It is a meaningful testimony of faith that brings good to the world and to ourselves. It brings peace of mind, blessing, and connection to the One that loves us.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana (tran. “head of the year”) is about getting one’s life together. Of course, a person can do that at any time. But human nature is such that we generally need some prodding and structure to get moving. Going to school has this effect on people. Couldn’t we just read books and do homework? Schools force us to open the books. Schools also provide us with teachers who work with us individually to open our minds. Naturally, I am speaking about good schools and teachers.

So how does Rosh Hashana accomplish all of this? Firstly, Rosh Hashana occurs about the same time every year. On the Jewish calendar, it is the 1st day of the month of Tishrei. This translates to a day in September or October on the Gregorian calendar, the one used almost exclusively throughout the world to organize civil affairs. On any given year, the day is fixed on that calendar too.

On that day, we recognize publicly and privately the kingship of God in the world. Now, the word king may not sound comfortable to the Western, particularly the American ear, and we'll discuss that in a moment. Let me say for now that the blowing of the shofar is meant to resemble a king’s trumpet. It serves to announce the arrival of the king. Also, the prayer service contains three special passages that discuss G-d’s kingship.

The principle at play here is that a person’s life goes better when lived with an awareness of God. Goals and role models are essential for personal achievement. As the basketball player Michael Jordan says, “Always focus on what you are trying to achieve.” God represents the super ideal of love, intelligence, self-discipline, compassion, integrity, and every other positive virtue. Setting ideas of God foremost in our minds, establishes for us ideals by which to live our lives.

In this way of thinking, a king is an ideal. We usually think of a king as a military and political ruler of a country. Such a person has worldly power but may be a spiritual disaster area. The word king contains positive associations as well. The “King of Rock n’ Roll” is a complementary term as it denotes creativity and excellence in performance of that brand of music. Similarly, a man of fine character is often described as a prince. The Kings of Israel such as David and Saul were men of extraordinary piety, bravery, and intelligence. Their kingship included leadership in the most positive of veins. The recognition of G-d as king of the world is intended to convey the idea of king as ideal.

Another aspect of God’s kingship is power. Before the advent of democracies, a relatively recent form of political organization, kings ruled countries. They generally held the power of life and death over the residents of a country. The recognition of God as king of the world eases some of our worldly fears. As the security guard at one of my old jobs used to say to me, “If God is with me, it doesn’t matter if the whole world is against me.” The power of worldly kings and worldly anything is something of an illusion. God allows them to appear as powerful. This is a major component of the system of free choice whose proper navigation is one of our primary purposes in life. I shall leave that discussion for another time. Our crowning of God as king lessens our fear of the things we so often fear: the whims of our bosses, the approval of the neighbors, crime, sickness, and loneliness. These matters seem to threaten our security and happiness and we lose ourselves in our fear of them. We respond with a variety of unhealthy acts such as thievery, self-aggrandizement, worry, and anger. We may try to buy off our villains by trading in our true thoughts and feelings for theirs. If God holds all real power, then we need not do any of that.

The other famous aspect of the day – judgment – works with all of these issues. On Rosh Hashana, God judges the world and each individual in it. To borrow a verse from a song, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” As a driving test reveals our skill as drivers of cars, the judgment on Rosh Hashana reveals our skills as drivers of ourselves. Are we kind, disciplined, faithful, or honest? These matters are brought to light on Rosh Hashana. Our knowledge that they will be brought to light, forces us to work on them before hand and to establish new goals for their attainment in the coming year.
Some people find the length of the service to be overwhelming. I’ll tell you quite frankly that the prayer service is only one component of the day. The recognition of God and the evaluation of ourselves is the main thing. If you feel you disinclined to attend the whole service, don’t worry about it. Try to catch the big items such as the blowing of the shofar or some piece of it, the three utterances, and some general prayer. The Shema and the Amida are the biggest components of that. I hope to discuss them at another time. Being part of a community, achieved through some attendance in synagogue, is another nice accomplishment for the day. I hope to discuss the value of community (and I say community not conformity) at some other time as well.