Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Where's the drama?

As I gazed at the Chanukah candles this year and soon had to look off to the side because my eyes started aching, I couldn't help but feel it was... anti-climactic. If I think about everything that goes into Chanukah, all the doughnuts, and gift cards, and parties, and music - a story of a war of the few against the mighty Assyrian Greek army. And I make two blessings and light the candles and then...
And then nothing. Nothing happens (that I can see). No orchestral crescendo, no particularly interesting lighting, no explosions. What's missing?

The Gemara says that the Maccabees were able to win due to the merit of the Cohen Gadol 200 years earlier, Shimon HaZadik. In an epic meeting between him and Alexander the Great, Alexander demounted his horse and bowed down to Shimon HaZadik, to everyone's surprise, and his army's dismay. The explanation: before every victory in his military campaign, Shimon HaZadik appeared before Alexander in a dream in his holy and pure Yom Kippur attire, to foretell his victory. That means that even while the war of the Maccabees was taking place, the real power of the Jews and the nature of the conflict was hidden, and even the rise of the Greek empire was brought about by something Alexander the Great himself, warrior and student of Aristotle, only saw in a dream but did not really understand.

The Jews who fought the Greeks understood this. That's how they had the courage to fight, knowing very well that their weak figures didn't stand a chance against professional soldiers with the latest technology. They understood that despite what it looked like, there was much more there than what met the eye. They placed in their hearts that they are a people who Hashem took out of Egypt with miracles that defied every aspect of nature, and who received the Torah, and its mission to unite Hashem's vision of the world with their own personal experience. And they knew that inside the Holy Temple the Greeks desecrated, there lies a place called the Holy of Holies, where "Heaven and Earth Kiss," the "Kiss" we live for.

For Greek eyes, the candles are missing the drama, and the Jewish kid on the block is merely the only one without a shiny Christmas tree (but has Adam Sandler's list of Jewish celebrities to make him feel better). But Jewish eyes remember a history of tears of pain and tears of joy and visions of light born from darkness. If we use our minds to direct our hearts, we'll find our eyes can reveal the miracle of what's really there. A subtle glow. Warm, persistent, happy. A power to build and overthrow empires, and more.

Friday, April 14, 2017

We Know How to Party

How do you explain Jewish holidays to non-Jews?.
"What are you celebrating this time?" 
"Well, we were bitterly enslaved for over 200 years and then we got to be not-enslaved" 
"Isn't that what you celebrated last time?" 
"No, last time, we were almost all murdered on the same day, but then we weren't." 
"And what about that booths one? What's that about?" 
"Yeah, that's when we left slavery to wander the dessert for 40 years. Woohoo!"
"What about the party you had 8 days after your baby brother was born, that was just celebrating the new addition, right?"
"Umm, not exactly..." 

We Jews are a strange bunch. We don't celebrate Moshe Rabbeinu's birthday (like christians celebrate Easter), or the day we landed in the land of Israel (like Americans celebrate Thanksgiving).

The Torah's vision of a "chag" is much deeper than a "celebration". The foundation of all the chagim is the exodus from Egypt. That's when we became the nation that would go on to accept the Torah and embrace the mission of fulfilling the world's purpose. For that to happen, we had to experience the worst that slavery to physicality could offer in order to rise above it. What we are "celebrating" is the process we went through that enabled us to have a real connection with the divine in our daily lives, and yeah, that includes both hard times and humility, and miracles and triumph.

Interestingly, the themes of Emunah (faith) and Cheirus (freedom) are both intrinsic to the exodus. As much as we are supposed to tap in to the freedom we achieved, we are equally required to internalize the perspective of seeing how, in the ten plagues, Hashem runs the world on every level. A person who can't approach the world knowing that whatever happens, there is always a purpose and direction, is bound to fall prey to life's traps. He'll turn to temporary gratification and ephemera to get him through the day. Only someone who is "enslaved" to the notion of purpose and connection in every situation is truly free. 

We eat and drink and sing (in short, party!) when we get the chance to do something extra-ordinary. That's the beginning of the journey, and the birth of the Jewish Nation.  

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Dramatic Twist

The gemara טענית כט says that just as we reduce our happiness when the month of Av begins, we increase our happiness when Adar begins. Oddly enough, Rashi says that we celebrate not only the miracles of Purim that happened in the month of Adar, but also Pesach, which is in Nissan. Why is Adar a time for celebrating Pesach? Rav Moshe Shapira זצוקלל explains that Purim is the אחרית, the end of Pesach. Pesach was full of revealed miracles that set the stage for the existence of a nation beyond the limitations of nature. But that reality was not sealed until Purim, when we saw a shakespearean drama on steroids, hidden miracles upon miracles, within nature, that saved us from destruction.

The word אחרית is used in seemingly very different ways. On the one hand, אלוהים אחרים means other gods, referring to idol worship, and the Tanna who infamously used his Torah knowledge to go against the Rabbis is called אחר. On the other hand, the coming of Moshiach is called אחרית הימים, the end of days. The point that they have in common is that אחר means something that is secondary to the primary thing. The Tanna is called אחר because he made his external knowledge, which is supposed to be secondary, into the main thing. Other "gods" are really just powers in the world that don't have any dominion from themselves, a small part of the army of the One director of all the powers.

אחרית הימים doesn't actually contain a new idea - Hashem revealed how he directs the world on every level through the exodus from Egypt. What it does do is it brings that reality into the lowest places. Much like יעקוב  came out of the womb holding on to the heel, the עקב, of his brother Esav, trying to bring the Yud, which represents thought, all the way down to the most physical part of the body. Expressing ideals within a physical existence is the purpose of world history, and the culmination of that is the kind of hidden revelation we experienced in Purim. That's why Purim story is such a dramatic twist - it reveals the light from within the darkest place.

Following my previous post, I would like to suggest that the proliferation within secular thought of moral relativism sets the stage for exactly this kind of twist. Philosophers cringe at the logical problems that arise when you try to consistently argue that different moral perspectives are correct even when they blatantly contradict each other. At worst, moral relativism is a way of justifying doing whatever you want. But a more careful look shows that the ideology of relativism surfaced amidst an increasingly un-empathetic, technological world, where universal standards and public eyes invade privacy and psychological stability. Its proponents are moved in part by empathy and individuality. In short, the voice of moral relativism, has a genuinely moral ring to it, despite its untenable logic.

If moral relativism is an emphasis on the individual world, an internal world which is not subject to universal standards, not even logic, it may be the עקב that is coming to be united with its Yud. Perhaps the corresponding idea that is to come out from the Torah world is that the personal בית, which is perceived as something independent of the Higher reality, is our generation's goal.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Bring It Home

What does internal growth mean? When I was growing up, my parents used to make little marks on the wall as they measured how I grew. I would look back after a few years and say 'wow, I only came up to there!?" But when it comes to internal growth, there are no marks and no wall and no getting taller. If your doctor tells you that you have an internal growth, its probably not a good sign. So what are we talking about!?

One way of speaking about internality in Lashon Hakodesh is the word בית as in the phrase מבית שמות כה יא) ומחוץ), inside and out. It means both "home" and "inside." To understand their interrelation, see the gemara Berachos 11a which discusses the verse in Shema ודברת בם בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך (and speak them while you're sitting in your house and you're going on the way). The Rabbis learn from the word בביתך that the Torah only obligates you in as much as you are free, so to speak, in your own domain. In other words, בביתך, in your home, means a place that is there for you to be under you're own jurisdiction, as opposed to being obligated by the commands of the King, under the dominion of the "Kingdom of Heaven." I think this is what we mean when we say "internal." It is a place that we perceive as being personal, not necessarily subject to any external forces or truths - a private reality that may or may not correspond to a reality outside of us.

A home is a place hidden from the outside, where you establish your own norms and expectations. The Rabbis (Berachos 4b) built a "fence" by obligating us to say the Shema before midnight out of concern we might say 'I'll just go home, eat a little bit, drink a little bit, sleep a little bit,' and then fall asleep until the next morning." They saw that home is a place where a person doesn't feel the imposition of heavenly obligation, in particular the obligation to accept upon oneself the Higher Reality. (Also, see the Remah in the begging of Shulchan Aruch, that says the way a person behaves in his home is not like he behaves before a king)

Internal growth is how to integrate the Higher Reality into "home." The Alter of Kelm says there are two ways of conquering the evil inclination - by subduing it from the outside, meaning controlling it with the intellect, and destroying it, meaning making your lower self desire the good from within itself. The Alter says that is what it means that on Purim the Jews re-accepted the Torah out of love. Seeing the way Hashem watched over the Jews and planned their salvation in a hidden way (without defying nature) inspired the Jews to accept the Torah in the hidden part of themselves. Much like a persons activities at home, they accepted to keep the Torah willingly and not only out of a sense of obligation.

Rav Elyahu Dessler says every person's free will is relative. While one persons challenge might be not to steal and murder, another's challenge may be to come to morning prayers a little earlier and give a little more of his time to the needy, and it would never cross his mind to hurt someone. The goal is always to move the 'battle-front" a little further, so that what was once an impossible sacrifice becomes a matter of course. This is part of the same idea. A person can see the realm of theft or even murder as a place that is not subject to objective truth, so that his personal feelings decide whether to take another's money or even his life. That can also be his "home." On the other hand, Avraham Avinu's home, his tent, was open on all four sides to receive guests. He dedicated his private domain to the world at large entirely!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Just Can't Wait to be King

What do you think of when you think about the glory of a king? Probably about the luxuries of royalty, a private chauffeur, the finest delicacies, honor, women, and, of course, the royal crown. Well, the Gemara Brachos (17a) has a different idea of what comes along with a crown: "Rav used to always say, the world to come is not like this world. In the world to come there will be no eating, no drinking, no reproduction, and no business dealings" and then he continues "rather, the Tzadikim will sit with crowns on there heads and take pleasure (and sustenance) from the radiance of Hashem's presence." Very nice Rav, but do I still get a chauffeur?

Obviously, Rav sees something in the concept of a crown that we're not getting. A crown is not something that happens to be associated with being a king because of some historical fashion fluke that caught on. A crown is part of the very definition of being king. In Kabbalah, their are ten levels of creation, or of Hashem's expression (and therefore, also the expression of Man who is created in the image of G-d). They are called Sefiros. The bottom Sefirah is called מלכות Kingship, or royalty, while the top is called כתר, crown. מלכות, being at the bottom is always receiving a flow from above, while כתר is the original, unbridled expression. Interestingly enough, every set of ten sefiros is followed by another set, in a long chain of expression from on high all the way down. The bottom sefira of the higher chain (מלכות) is also the top sefira of the bottom chain (כתר). In other words, every כתר is also מלכות.
Lehavdil, if you remember the scene from the movie Inception, where they walk up the stairs and as soon as they get to the top they're at the bottom again... That phenomenon that we experience in our dreams is actually a very really part of the way the world works spiritually. (Penrose Stairs)

A true king is someone who's entire identity is a ruler of his people. The role he takes on is much greater than his own personal life, even if his personal qualities make hime suitable for the job. He wears a crown, which lays on top of his head, but does not surround his head like a hat, because the fact that he is living for something beyond his own existence is what makes him king. The crown is higher than him. But its a paradox - because he nullifies himself to the crown, he actually elevates himself and becomes royalty and honored by everyone. He makes himself a receptacle (מלכות), for the higher purpose of his role (כתר).

Every person has the sense that there is something about him that is not from him. Its the experience of this paradox, that I am something more than just what I am for myself. That's what Rav is talking about. A Tzadik is someone who lives for this higher part of himself, the part that connects him to something much greater than what he is for himself. And that is what gives him the greatest pleasure and vitality. Rav is saying that there will come a time when the true nature of a Tzadik will be revealed, and we'll see that their creative energy, their life force doesn't come from gratifying their personal desires at all. It comes from wearing a crown like a king.

The Rabbi's say, the servant of the King is a king. I think they were also hinting at this idea. When a person subjugates himself entirely to the higher part of himself, the part that wants to give, that wants his lower self to follow his higher self, he becomes identified with the crown that he is serving, and that becomes the real 'him'! May we merit to see this reality come to be, both internally, and revealed in the world we can see with our eyes, speedily in our days.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Purpose, Complacency, and Anxiety.

The notion that our technology and sociological advancement provide us comfort and independence is foreign to the Torah world-view. In fact, comfort itself can be anti-advancement.

When the Jews left the slavery of Egypt, they were leaving behind both the bonds of physical labor and the burden of an anti-spiritual world-view. Even the word for Egypt, מצרים comes from the word for narrow, צר, which also means suffering. The whole society was built on physicality without respect for intimate relationships, and worship of physical representations of spiritual ideas. The way this nature was established as its foundation was through the source of its livelihood: the Nile. The Nile was the sole source of irrigation in a primarily agricultural society. Everything depended on the Nile. Unlike in the land of Israel, where people depended mostly on rain, Egypt didn't have to turn to the heavens for life. שאו מרום עיניכם וראו מי ברא אלה, "Lift your eyes upwards and see who created these" (Isaiah 40, 26). They were comfortable, and their comfort kept them in their narrow world view, never thinking about where life comes from and what they could do to bring it down. Leaving the Egyptian mentality required the Jews to journey into the dessert without provisions and to depend entirely on sustenance from heaven. That was the only way they could begin to see things the way G-d sees them.

You also see this idea on a more individual level. King David said שמרני כאישון בת עין "Guard me like the pupil of the eye" (Tehillim 17,8). The Midrash explains Davids request in a metaphor, like two people, one from the north traveling south, and one from the south traveling north, asking each other to guard each other's vineyards. The Maharal explains (Nesiv HaTorah 16), just like each person has something precious that is far away from him, every Jew has a soul that is too spiritual to really belong in this physical world. That's why a person feels like he needs special protection. Just like the pupil of an eye is extra sensitive because of its refined quality, so too the soul feels vulnerable because it doesn't really belong in this world in the first place! This feeling, if it is directed properly, catalyzes a person to strengthen his relationship with Hashem through Torah and Mitzvos. It pushes him to recognize that the only reason his lofty soul is enduring in this physical world is so that he can acquire the goodness of a relationship with Hashem. But when he ignores this feeling of vulnerability, he can ignore the higher part of himself and just go along his merry way without ever getting beyond the surface. Or, he could stay in a kind of middle ground, where he doesn't totally ignore it, but also doesn't open up to see things differently - and that's where you find anxiety. Its the place between sublime calmness of purpose and the complacency of ignorance is bliss. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Anxiety and Vitality

The standard way to think about anxiety probably goes back to the idea of "fight or flight." It means when we encounter a threat, we instinctually release hormones that prepare us to solve the problem by either fighting or running away. This phenomenon has been observed and empirically tested in many ways, and is also in line with common experience. I'd like to suggest an alternative, Torah way of understanding what it means, and perhaps where it comes from.

The running theory of where it comes from is that way back in the day, humans lived under conditions under which the fight or flight response was very useful. It was not uncommon to encounter mortal threats. Nowadays, our living conditions are much more advanced and controlled, and the fight or flight response is a vestige of our evolutionary heritage, but is of little use to us. In fact, it is harmful, seeing as prolonged stress can be deleterious for health and well-being.

In the Torah, the concept of life is much broader than the animalistic picture of survival of the fittest. For example, it says that the righteous are alive even in their deaths, and the wicked are dead even in their life-times. A person can be alive in a circumstantial way, merely in the sense that he happens to have a heart that's pumping. Or, he can be alive in the sense that he is always making himself into something which is flowing forward with vitality. When the talmud wants to say that both sides of an argument are true, it says אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים (these and these are words of living G-d). To say that the words are an expression of life is a way of saying they are true because when something clicks and works with a bigger picture of reality it propels you forward and catalyzes you. A person that has this quality isn't alive because someone gave birth to him - he's alive because he is creating himself, and no one can take that away.

Everyone relates to this higher ideal of what "life" is on some level. That's why as we go through the vicissitudes of life we experience anxiety. We feel something doesn't click, something is taking away our ability to be alive. Depending on how we understand what being alive means, we may think about it in more physical or more spiritual terms and experience different things as threats. Very great people have reached hights where even literal threats to their physical lives were not as frightening as the possibility of turning away from the living G-d.

Unfortunately, we develop a very narrow picture of what it means to be vital, and we experience things as threats that really aren't. I'll explain more in the following posts, G-d willing, but in short, the process of overcoming anxiety has to do with addressing what seems like it doesn't click with our view of a meaningful big picture, and coming to see how it is really דברי אלוקים חיים.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Own the Sunset

What is gratitude? We usually think of it as a kind of social obligation. If someone scratches your back, you scratch theirs, or at least replace a back scratch with a "thank you." But, as usual, the Torah sees things differently.

The Rabbis point out that the first plague (where the Nile turns into blood) was brought about by Aaron striking the water with his staff instead of Moshe. They learn that, since when he was a baby, Moshe Rabeinu was saved by drifting along the Nile in a basket, he owed the Nile a debt of gratitude, and it was therefore more appropriate for Aaron to be the one to strike the water and bring about the plague of blood. What kind of social obligation is there for a river, and even after all of those years!

Gratitude in Lashon Hakodesh is called הכרת הטוב, (recognizing the good). Recognition means registering what is happening, seeing that it is the way it is and not some other way, and that it didn't have to be this way. It means noticing that something exists the way it does, in the context it does, and the more detail the more the recognition.

The Rabbis have a tradition, someone who has דעא has everything, and someone who doesn't - "what does he have?" (דעא .(נדרים מא is the kind of knowledge that comes from הכרה, from recognition. What they're saying is, until you register that you have something, that you know something, that you benefit from something, it's not really yours. You could be at the top of the Fortune 500 list and still be poor.

The reason we make blessings so many times a day isn't because we are OCD. Its because (in part) Hashem wants to give us things so that they are really ours, and in order for that to happen we have to have הכרת הטוב. When we make a blessing on anything, even a sunset, it becomes our sunset.

One of the reasons its hard to be grateful sometimes is because we feel like if we admit that the good we have didn't have to be there, we feel vulnerable and dependent. We think 'gratitude? but I needed this!' So instead we pretend it just has to be there and we allow ourselves to get used to it. But the truth is, gratitude is the only way to have something so that no one can take it away from you. When you make a blessing well on a piece of bread, even if you never have another piece of bread, this one is yours forever.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Deal or Scam?

“עין לא ראתה אלהים זולתך יעשה למחכה לו,” (The Eye has not seen, G-d, except you, what is done for one who waits for him) Isaiah 64:3.
The Rabbis learn this verse (Brachos 34) as Isaiah’s praise for the “world to come” (otherwise known as heaven). No one, not even prophets, have seen it… Lets try to understand this. If I came up to you and said, I’ll make you a deal. You dedicate every waking moment of your life to me, and in return, I’ll give you a very special gift. What’s the gift? You can’t see it, and if I showed you I would have to kill you. Sounds appealing right!?!
This “deal” scenario, where you achieve divine salvation in a quick move of thriftiness, has nothing to do with אמונה, (poorly translated as faith). The philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested such a thought experiment (Pascal’s wager) as an entrance into faith. In decision theory, you make decisions by multiplying chance by possible reward. Along these lines, Pascal calculated that even on the minimal chance that there is infinite reward after death for faith, multiply that minimal chance by infinity and you get infinity! So Pascal would take my offer of a “secret gift” in a blink, at least theoretically. Obviously, common sense says otherwise.
אמונה is a person’s connection to a deeper perspective of the world. Are you just reacting to your surroundings, like a robot who responds functionally to a command, or do you live with a reality that is beyond what the eye can see. We can understand things with vision through the power of metaphor. The thing which is visible from the outside represents something, communicates something. We say in the song of the day on shabbos, אמונתך בלילות, “Your Faith at nights”. At night its dark, the external world is taken away from you, and you are left with yourself, alone. That is the place for אמונה. Like they say, ‘no atheists in a fox hole.’ Some situations can be deeply sobering. When your sober, your not swayed by external things that aren’t sound, that aren’t real. In a foxhole, you think about what life is really about, what you did in your life that will last. 
The Rabbis in the Gemara 'Sotah,' 48, speak about a how a person's actions merit great reward. Surprisingly, they say that if he is weak in his belief that he will be rewarded for his actions, his reward is reduced. Why should his belief take away from the good deeds he did? The Maharal explains: A person that can anticipate reward in a world that doesn't appreciate it as much as it should shows he has a special quality: He connects to a hidden future because he has a hidden quality about himself. Since the world to come is a reality that is in essence hidden, he fits there and belongs there.

If there is any truth in Pascal's wager, it is that a person who understands the concept of a hidden world of infinite reward will surely behave differently. But understanding the concept is not a question of making a simple calculation - it involves the inner truth of a person and how he relates to his reality.
עין לא ראתה (The eye has not seen it) is the praise of the world to come not because even a minimal chance of infinite reward justifies a radical commitment. Rather, because it is so intrinsically real that it's deeper than anything you can see in a world of externallity. And a person who lives such an idea is surely worthy of reward that the external world cannot offer. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Hope: Substance of Creation

"In the Beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth." What a terrible translation. As if the Torah were there to just inform us of G-d's creation. For starters, the first word of the Torah is בראשית, which means, in its simple reading, in the beginning of. So it reads something like, In the beginning of... created God the heavens and the land. Clunky right? Well its supposed to be. Its revealing the beginning, the foundation, the substance of everything that ever was and ever will be. I would think it should be hard to understand.
I just want to bring out one point, but there are literally thousands of ideas written about this one phrase.

In the beginning of... It's deliberately open ended. The Vilna Goan says that by uttering the word בראשית, G-d created time.  We usually think of time as a link or continuation of past and future. There was something, and then... something else. But its no secret that this idea of time is a paradox (as in Zeno's paradox). A new moment in time is gone as soon as it has come. Identifying where this thing called time is is impossible. We just observe that things change, move, and call this phenomenon time.

The Vilna Gaon revealed something to us, if will listen. The word for time in hebrew, זמן, also means preparation, זימון. If time is created with a word that means, among other things, "in the beginning of", that means time is... anticipation, hope. Time is not just change, it is direction and growth. The world was formed out of an unidentifiable substance which is in essence, the ability to grow, and to actualize potential. The word for G-d in the verse is אלוהים which is the expression of the creator that limits for us or focuses G-d's infiniteness and creates a power structure. But before that expression, time was created, the ability to harness the infinite potential within any structure. The word for hope, תקוה comes from the word for direction, קו. It means coming from a feeling of constriction and chaos and then reaching inside and finding a yearning. Feeling limited externally, but knowing internally that there are no limits and there is salvation.
The very first words of the Torah,  בראשית ברה אלוהים, sings out, that the essence of creation ex-nihilo is transforming physicality, limitations, constriction, into infinity, and it reveals how this infinity is at the root of everything from the very begining. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Hungry? Eat a Mitzvah

Continuing on the theme from last week...

Isiah 1:3: "ידע שור קונו וחמור אבוס בעליו ישראל לא ידע עמי לא התבונן" An Oxe knows its master and a donkey its manager, Israel doesn't know, My nation doesn't reflect!? 

The prophet is giving rebuke, provoking repentance and return. Simply stated, he's saying, if even these animals can recognize their masters who provide for them, why do the Jews act as if there were no Master?

On second thought, it is really a strange comparison. Animals recognize their master because they see him feeding them. They feel hungry, and instinctually seek out the source of their previous meal. And if they obey their master, it is only because they have been trained to do so. These animals never asked themselves why bad things happen to good people, never pondered infinity, never heard a debate between a theologian and an atheist. What merit would it be for the Jewish people if they were more like these animals that follow there survival instincts? What has faith go to do with Pavlov's dogs?

We tend to think of survival instincts as being at odds with a religious view of life. We place evolution at on extreme, together with a principle of survival of the fittest, and creationism at the other, together with free will and divine intervention.

Isiah lives in a different paradigm. Man is not just a very intelligent animal. He has a body, and he has a נשמה (neshama) a soul. Just like his body has instincts like an animal does, so does his neshama. The neshama is also hungry. When the Jews act as if there is no creator and no special relationship with Him, it is spiritually unnatural. They still have their spiritual hunger, but they turn to things that don't satisfy them, or try to ignore their hunger all together.

We do all kinds of funny things that even animals would never do, and we can be existentially passionate about all sorts of things that don't really hit the spot like they should. If we would only recognize what this hunger really is, everything would be different.    
(based on a sermon of Rav Elyah Lopian)