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)