Tag Archives: prayer

Everything Is Amazing and Nobody is Happy

This week’s Torah portion is easily one of the most famous. Everyone knows the general

outline – God tells Noah that he’s going to destroy the world which has become corrupted

beyond redemption, and Noah needs to build an ark to save himself, his family, and all of

the animals of the world. When learning this story, from a young age on, we’re taught to

identify with Noah, the most righteous of his generation. So what was so wrong with this

generation that a guy like Noah, who didn’t even bother to warn his fellow humans of the

impending doom, was the most righteous?

 

One of the explanations our ancient sages gave us in the Talmud was that this generation

had become haughty because of the goodness that God showered upon them (Sanhedrin,

108b). Citing the book of Job to describe these wicked people the Talmudic baraita goes

on to say that they enjoyed so much abundance and such great wealth that they came

to believe that they didn’t need God for anything at all. This wicked generation enjoyed

extremely long lives in which they were never lacking in food or pleasures, music was

always readily at hand, and their children danced.

 

A few years ago, one of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., was on Conan O’Brien’s

talk show and pointed out some pretty clear truths about today’s generation. The general

theme of his interview was that, today, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. His

most clear elucidation of this theme is the fact that people complain about their cellphone

reception not being strong enough to surf the internet, without considering the fact that

the signal has to go all the way up to outer space and back. Similarly, a few generations

ago, it would have been inconceivable to have a piece of equipment like a modern day

smartphone be available for nearly everyone.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I complain about these things; with modern conveniences

come modern inconveniences. I also must admit that in comparison to the early rabbis of

around 1800 years ago who wrote the baraita quoted above, my life has so far matched

their description of the generation of the flood to a tee. I have certainly been quite lucky

in my life, but I would also say that the majority of my friends in the Jewish world

have had similar luck. If we are like Louis C.K. says and absurdly taking the wonders

of our world for granted, are we then mirroring the generation of the flood? Are we

similarly devoid of thanks to God, losing our ability to see the wonders in what is now

our everyday life? In short, should someone start building an ark?

 

Well, I think an ark might be a bit much, but there’s another clear alternative: Let’s be

more thankful. But thankful to whom? The second problem of the generation of the Flood

according to the baraita, that of casting God off, is another struggle that we face today.

One of the greatest issues in Modern Judaism is with the conception of God. We are so

often confronted with ideas and conceptions of God that are inherently contradictory

to a modern, scientific mindset that it is sometimes quite difficult to conceive of fully

believing in a God. It is especially difficult to believe in one that has the power to flood

the entire earth, but needs a human being to build an ark to save a remnant of inhabitants.

This is not a reason to dismiss the whole concept of a higher power, though, but instead

a challenge to the conception we have of our rational sensibilities to fully understand

our reality. The critique of thanklessness found in both the Talmud and Louis C.K. is a

similar challenge. Although we may have cast aside the idea of a man in the sky pulling

strings and deciding upon punishment and reward, at the very least we can marvel at the

wonders of nature, human ingenuity, and sheer beauty in the world around us. If just that

spark of wonder can be fanned, thankfulness for these phenomena will surely follow.

Luckily our tradition has a built in mechanism for reminding us of the wonders of our

life. The Jewish practice of reciting blessings is designed specifically to orient us towards

acknowledgment of the wondrous goings on around us. The morning prayer sequence in

particular (shaharit) is designed to start our day by thanking God for returning our souls

to a working body, along with giving us all of the things we need, from sight to physical

flexibility to consciousness, to go about our day.

 

It seems unlikely that we are heading towards another great destruction akin to that of

the story of Noah. Even if we don’t actually face a doom that necessitates an ark, we can

certainly take something away from the commentary of our rabbinic tradition. If mere

haughty thanklessness in a time of great plenty was thought of as enough to warrant utter

destruction, we ought to take this into account. In fact, if we read Noah’s collection of all

of the creatures of creation as an acknowledgment of the many various wonders of the

world, instead of as a literal gathering of the species onto a boat, we even find the answer

to the problem right in the story. Acknowledging the wonders of our daily life, and our

lack of control or full understanding of these wonders, is something we can all benefit

from. It brings a sense of awe to the everyday that can enrich even the most banal of

moments when utilized correctly. If this is the way that Noah became the most righteous

in his generation, let us all strive for such righteousness!

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Gateways to God

ImageLast week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26), begins the record of the Priestly vocation in ancient Israelite religion.  Most scholars agree that the entirety of Leviticus was written well after any stage of roving worship, and that the language of Leviticus that prescribes cultic activity based around the mishkan, the travelling abode of God, was written down by the priesthood during the period of the cult being centered in Jerusalem.

This Torah portion recounts the most common of ritual sacrifices of the time. Each sacrifice either requires a domesticated animal or domesticated crops. The individual wishing to make this offering was required to bring it to the altar found in front of the mishkan, where he would have to lay his hands on the head of the sacrifice, and then slaughter the sacrifice for the priests. Then, depending upon the specific sacrifice, the priests would take the blood, either spread it on the altar or scatter it around the altar, and remove specific fat and organs from the sacrifice. If it is an offering of grain, it is prepared as a specific unleavened bread product. The sacrifice is then burnt, its smoke rising as a pleasing odor to God.

It’s a complex, detailed, and messy business. At the time, these rituals were the gateway between God and the people of Israel. But the book of Leviticus stands on its own today, its Priestly writers lost in the mist of history.  We are left to decode it, and to understand its underlying values, the spirit it is holding within.

Lurianic Kabbalah tells us that our world is full of empty shells, called klipot, waiting to be opened to reveal their internal holy spark. The shells act as a barrier between humanity and the Divine.  To call the rites of Leviticus klipot is surely heresy in some circles, but as we live in a world without a mishkan and without a strong connection to the ritual praxis of the Levites, we are entirely disconnected from spiritual content of these sacrifices. A shell certainly exists around them, especially if we take seriously the reality implicit to the rituals of their being a gateway between humanity and God. With the destruction of the Temples, this gateway was closed.

Rabbinic Judaism attempted to use prayer in place of sacrifice, creating an analogous structure in the prayer service to that of the sacrifice service. Part of the traditional Jewish prayer service is a recounting of portions of Leviticus, followed by a prayer that God will accept the recounting as if it were an actual sacrifice. The early Rabbis’ splitting and reinterpreting of the sacrificial cult via language is a brilliant method of dealing with the very clear problem of how to reopen this gateway to God. Words, in that time, were seen as miraculously powerful. Magic still existed in the minds of the public, and words were able to change and shape reality in incredible ways.

Unfortunately for most today, though, to enter into the real heart of the Jewish prayer structure is requires a great deal of study, a relatively high level of comfort with Hebrew, and an understanding of the meaning of the structure in relation to the Jewish understanding of connection to God. Many find prayer services meaningful without really understanding the background, but my experience has shown me that just as many, if not more, do not.

As Max Weber said, we have disenchanted our reality through industrialization, commodification, and materialization. Words have become nearly worthless. Any shmo such as myself can have a blog where his or her words are posted up for anyone in the world to read. In many ways, silence, the lack of language, has become far holier. In fact, to go back to the original topic, the sacrificial rituals according to Leviticus were completely silent, a far cry from the prayer services we attend today as Jews.

The first parashah of Leviticus is a statement of the general tools of the priesthood; an introduction to the basic procedures that will be expounded upon and specified in greater detail as they become more clearly elucidated. The general outline of sacrifice offered in this parashah gives me my tools to use to interpret it: The main players are the Priesthood, the objects of sacrifice, the methods of sacrifice, and the purpose of sacrifice. Please allow this d’var torah to be the same.  As we move forward into further portions, I will attempt to more greatly elucidate our situation today in relation to our own gateways to God, be it through prayer, silence, or attempting to peel away the klipot, the shells, surrounding these rituals to reveal the divine spark within.

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Radical Prayer

In Parshah Vaetchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11) we’ve entered the meat of Deuteronomy. More recap of already established law and narrative. I think it’s exceptionally difficult to charge this material with anything interesting unless the reader has a sense of the historical context of the book.

Deuteronomy is more or less a contract between God and the Israelites. It recaps a lot of what happened previously between them simply because this is part of the contractual framework used very regularly throughout the ancient Near East at this time. The contract which openly states that this God is the one and only God, and that the Israelites swore fealty only to this God, was compiled in the face of the two major empires of the time (Assyria and Babylonia) baring down on the small nation of Judah. Assyria had already destroyed the Northern Kingdom, and this new book that rounds out the Torah was written in conjunction between the Northerners who had escaped the destruction, and the Judahites who were still hoping to survive in the face of the greatest powers of the era. Most scholars think that the canonization of Deuteronomy continued into the eventual exile into Babylon, and that the redactors and writers of this book, or their successors, also wrote much of the rest of the Tanach. They call these books the “Deuteronomistic History.” If nothing else, Deuteronomistic is a hell of a scrabble word.

This places Deuteronomy in a very interesting space, and actually ends up making Deuteronomy arguably the most important book of the Torah in regards to the core of Judaism (notice,we call it Judah-ism today). It’s by no means the most entertaining or engaging, but it holds the heart of Jewish thought. Nothing makes this more clear than this Parshah.

In Deut. 6:4-9, we find the core creed of Judaism, the Shema. It is supposed to be the first thing we say when we get up, the last thing we say when we go to sleep, and even the last thing we say in our lives. What I find so striking about it is that, in many ways, the basic meaning of it (monotheism) has become so prevalent throughout the world. Up until Christianity and Islam came to power monotheism was not a generally accepted belief. In comparison to the Romans, Greeks, or Mesopotamians that the ancient Jews lived amongst, monotheism might as well have been atheism. Reciting the Shema was often seen as public disrespect towards the gods of these other nations. If you think about it in reference to the fact that this prayer was composed to rebuke the polytheism of two of the greatest empires of all time, reciting it really was an act of defiance. In this day and age where monotheism is the most popular form of religion in the world it is hard to keep this in mind. If monotheism has become mainstream, though, is it then time to re-radicalize the Shema?

One of the most frequent questions I get when conversing with Orthodox Jews is “How is your approach different than Christianity’s?” Now, I’m pretty sure they’re at least partially just trying to push my buttons, but I do think it’s fair. When you boil down liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity, everything outside of the whole Jesus controversy starts to look a lot alike. The very nature of liberalism means that this should be the case, though. Unfortunately, once that road is paved, it’s much easier to just move on with the liberalism and without the Judaism or Christianity, and that’s one of the great fears and struggles of the Reform movement today. This is not only unfortunate for the religions, though. I am not one to argue that the irreligious or atheistic are inherently less moral than those who ascribe to one of the world’s traditions. I do think that what Western liberalism, which informs Reform Judaism, lacks on its own is guidance in determining personal values in life, and ways to orient and divide up time in a manner that helps to infuse life with meaning.

In Deuteronomy chapter 5, we’re given a restatement of the Ten Commandments. From the perspective of Judaism, these are just about as basic as it gets. Since we’ve already been talking about the Shema, let’s talk about Commandments one (There is only one God) and two (You may not worship idols). I’ve previously written about my conception of God, but let me try to lay it out simply (as one wise Jew once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”) The monotheistic God, in my opinion, transcends the God of the Bible, and can be described most basically as being the flow of meaning and purpose that pushes time forward.So what commandments one and two are saying is that the true power in our human universe is a singular force of value and meaning, and must not be confused with anything other than that which it is. Money, power, status, or anything else is merely a manifestation or human-created fetish of this force.

This is what the Shema is saying. Although we all have other things we find important, what we must always keep at the forefront of our mind is that this singular charge, this power and force of meaning and purpose behind creation, is the one object that should be placed above all. All else is interpretation attempting to explain the best way to integrate this understanding into your life. Like the great Rabbi Hillel said when asked to teach the Torah on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary.”

As I stated before, the Shema is the central creed of the Jewish religion, focused entirely on the fact that we have one, and only one, God. It is followed immediately by another prayer, both in the Torah and in Jewish liturgy, called the V’ahavtah, which is focused on loving God. The Torah is the most important and ancient Jewish record of our interactions with God. According to Hillel (arguably the greatest Rabbi of all time), the quickest way to summarize the Torah is to say “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” So, I think that we can logically reason that what the shema is saying, then, is that our behavior, above all else, should be focused on empathy and kindness. Instead of focusing on predicting the future, or unravelling the past, the Shema asks us to live in the now, to hear, state, and know that the oneness of God is central, and that our purpose is found in lovingkindness. If we began our days and ended our days contemplating this, even just ever so briefly in the six words of this prayer, would this not reorient us in a way that might actually help shift the world we live in?

The Shema is a radical prayer, written in defiance of the greatest human forces on the planet. It not only outlived these forces by thousands of years, its basic meaning has become accepted worldwide. Maybe by re-charging this prayer with a new meaning, we can affect a similar change on our world today. Isn’t that the purpose of this whole Judaism thing?

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