Wednesday, November 29, 2006

G-d's Rocks

In parsha vayetze we read, Bereshit 28: 11 :
He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place which he arranged around his head, and lay down in that place.
Our sages comment that the word for place, makom, can be understood as a Name of Hashem, making this substitution the passage then reads:
He encountered Hashem and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of Hashem which he arranged around his head, and lay down in Hashem.
Now the beginning passage is understandable as it stands and is even clearer if one using the translation of prayed instead of encountered. So we have:
He prayed to Hashem and spent the night there because the sun had set;
But how are we to understand the phrase: the stones of Hashem? The Zohar, Pritzker edition 1:147B, reads:
He took of the stones of the place. It is not written: the stones of the place, but rather: of the stones of the place - precious stones, fine pearls, twelve supernal stones, as is written, twelve stones, underneath which lie twelve thousand, myriads of hewn stones, all stones. So, of the stones of the place, not: the stones of the place-the place of which we have spoken.
Now the Zohar understands makom as The Lesser Light (Shekinah) and stones as angels, as elucidated:
twelve stones....symbolizing twelve angels beneath Shekinah...twelve thousand myriads....thousands of other ministering angels
The Zohar then continues commenting on "around his head" which it reads in the plural as "heads":
"And put them at his heads. At whose heads? At the heads of that place . What does at the heads mean? If you say, 'Like a person putting something under his head' - no! Rather at its heads, at the four directions of the world: three stones to the north, three to the west, three to the south, three to the east, with that place above them, arrayed upon them.
Now this phrase is familiar as part of the bed time prayers. Michael to my right, Gabriel to my left, Uriel before me, Raphael behind me and over me the Divine Presence. The elucidation comments:
The four heads or cardinal points, stemming from the Shekinah are each overseen by one of the four archangels.....each accompanied by two subordinate angels. Jacob's placement of the twelve stones corresponds precisely to the stations of these angels.
So now the passage can be read as:
He prayed to Hashem and spent the night there because the sun had set; he selected certain of Hashem's angels which he positioned at the four directions, surrounding the Divine Presence manifest on earth,
And the concluding portion of the passage can be understood in the following way: According to Zoharic thought, Jacob represents tiferet or the greater light. By uniting the greater and lesser lights, divine bounty is drawn down enabling Jacob to experience the vision of the ladder. So we now read:
He prayed to Hashem and spent the night there because the sun had set; he selected certain of Hashem's angels which he positioned at the four directions, surrounding the Divine Presence manifest on earth, and by these actions united with the Divine Presence. And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder....

Sunday, November 26, 2006

That's freedom fries to you, buddy

My new passport just arrived so it turns out that the Post Office actually can deliver the mail to another government agency (see post: the government that works). As expected the photo is really flattering and I fully expect to visit with Barney the sniffing Beagle the next time I go through passport control. How do I know that there is a beagle named Barney that is employed by customs and immigration? I have had the pleasure of spending quality time with Barney and his handlers when I was returning from France. Barney wears a rather dapper bright green jacket that is emblazoned with the words U.S. Customs. His handlers wear government issue dark suits and narrow ties. I was wearing wrinkled and smelly clothing after living out of a duffel bag for five weeks. My mistake was not keeping the ticket stubs to the Air France portion of my trip. I transferred planes at Heathrow and not needing to haul with me the used tickets, I threw them away during my layover. So when I arrived in Seattle and immigration asked where I was coming from and I said France and they said let's see your tickets and I said I didn't have them, and French immigration had not stamped my passport and had just waved me through, so other than a pocket full of Francs, I had no actual proof of having been to France, I got to visit with Barney and his friends.

My next step in trip preparation is to learn Ukrainian, I don't need to be anywhere near able to carry on a conversation, I just want to be able to get on the right train from Kiev to Uman, get a place to sleep, and tell people that I don't actually speak Ukrainian or understand what they are saying to me. Anything beyond that will earn me bonus points with the locals. I have found that making a little effort to learn the language of the place you are traveling to can make a big difference with the reception you get from the people that live there, as can the old fall back of identifying yourself as a Canadian. You, under no circumstances, want to be the florid, short-wearing, camera-toting, American tourist, who believes that everyone understands English if you only speak it loudly enough and add extra EE's to the end of your words. On one of the last days I spent in Paris I was having lunch in a small cafe when in came a middle aged couple matching exactly the above description. Within a few minutes the gentleman was screaming at the waiter: French Fries, I want French Fries, dammit they're from here, French Fries! Now for my part, I was slinking down in my chair hoping that no one would suspect that we were from the same country. I was also trying to send the words "pom frite" psychically to the red-faced gentleman. "pom frite, pom frite,....pleeease, just say pom frite." It didn't work, the florid couple left, probably when they got home they regailed their friends with stories about the ignorant French who didn't even know what french fries were. Now I suspect that the waiter was just yanking their chain since during the course of my stay in Paris I had been told, in perfect english, to "just speak english" so as not to do any more harm to the French language. Also there was a huge outburst of laughter in the cafe after the couple left. The first words that I plan to learn in Ukrainian? French fries. You just need to be prepared.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Amazing Grace

Before I became a Baal Teshuvah I explored some other spiritual paths. While I was on those journeys I visited various "holy sites" around the world, and while in some places I did experience chien, mostly they were just a place. When people ask me if I have been to Eretz Yisrael, I always give a plausible reason why I haven't. But the real reason is that what if I go and the light does not shine down on me? What if I go and The Wall is just a wall? Will this alter my emunah? Will my emunah withstand that blow? So I don't test it, and I don't go.

Now the reason that I mention all this is that I am planning to make the pilgrimage to Uman this next Rosh Hashanah, G-d willing. And the word pilgrimage has a certain connotation of receiving chein at the conclusion of the journey. I've seen the photos and videos of people in Uman with tears streaming down their faces, people on their knees, with their open hands raised, screaming out to Hashem, people having a total emotional breakdown. I want to be one of those people. I have been touched by chein and have stood laughing and sobbing and crying out, all at the same time, and I long to experience that again. But what if I don't? What if I go to Uman, and ... well.. there I am in Uman?

So I have been thinking about this, and with that synchronicity that happens when Hashem pushes you in the direction that you ask to go, I just read this in Likutey Moharan 17:2 :

there are times when the tzaddik's light is obscured from a person and he does not merit understanding or seeing the tzaddik's great light. And even if he is by the tzaddik, he cannot taste, understand or see the tzaddik's great light......when the tzaddik's light is obscured from a person. This light radiates in all the worlds, especially in this world. Even so, for him it does not shine at all. Quite the reverse, for him it is dark. This comes as a result of shameful deeds and foolishness.....the rectification for this, in order to subdue and eliminate foolishness, is through the concept of the altar.....the altar is in a rectified state when eating is performed properly... by eating properly, foolishness is subdued and the intellect is elevated.

The elucidation states that eating properly consists of: eating slowly with dignity, eating kosher food, washing hands before and after eating, and reciting the blessings before and after eating, with kavanah. Now prior to reading this I would avoid eating bread just so I didn't have to slog through birkat hamazon afterwards, now, to the puzzlement of my family, I have become Mr. Grace-after-meals. I say bring on the toast and sandwiches just so I get to bentch some more.

Now this takes care of eating from here on, but what about prior to this when my eating was maybe not so good? In L.H. 17:5 Rabbenu says:

by giving charity to more people, a larger area of tranquil and pure air comes into existence. Accordingly, the more he gives to greater amounts of people and acquires additional friends and loved ones - as "wealth adds many friends" - the greater and greater the area of tranquil and pure air grows and increases, Therefore, the main thing is to give charity to genuine tzaddikim and deserving paupers the elucidation says: Giving charity to more people creates a greater tranquility, allowing more people to hear the words, (of the tzaddik) until the tzaddik's words can traverse the entire globe. But when hatred exists, the storm-wind prevents even a person standing right next to the tzaddik from hearing the words of faith. Therefore, the first act one should perform to rectify his foolishness (i.e. blemishing the altar by improperly eating) [i.e., to clear the air] is to give charity

Thursday, November 16, 2006

"I ain't often right, but I've never been wrong"

Now that a few weeks have gone by the new additions to my daily spiritual practice have stabilized. The next two items from Rav Breiter's list were: saying the K'riat Shema before going to sleep, and making a reckoning. Now the first wasn't completely a new addition since I had already been saying the Shema before sleep, but I hadn't been doing all the nighttime prayers that went with it. The only difficulty I experienced was staying awake through it all. By the time bedtime has arrived I'm ready to go to sleep almost immediately so it was a little tough keeping the eyes open those extra 15 minutes (have I mentioned how slowly I read Hebrew?) that I needed to complete the nighttime prayers.
The second part, making a reckoning, had me a little puzzled as Rav Breiter lists it after the nighttime prayers, which seemed to indicate that it was said after completing them. I had always understood that after concluding the nighttime prayers one was not to speak between the prayers and falling asleep. In fact it was best if you could fall asleep while mentally repeating the Shema or Tehillim. I usually lose consciousness somewhere around Boruch Shem. So I asked Rabbi Dovid Sears about this and he responds:

Teshuvah and cheshbon ha-nefesh are part of Kriyas Shema al ha-Mitah. I never heard anything special about at what point you should do it: before saying the Shema or after, such as during the Tehillim, etc. As for speaking after the final berakhah, I assume that one should have finished any words of hisbodedus that were part of the cheshbon ha-nefesh by the time one has recited the berakhah.

So this would indicate that the reckoning is done out loud and during the nighttime prayers.

Rabbi Ozer Bergman, in his book Where Earth and Heaven Kiss, writes:

Some people practice a limited form of hitbodedut - namely, the "accounting" part. They set aside a time to review their Jewish successes and failures vis a vis the outside (i.e., mitzvah observance) and the inside (i.e., their faith, trust and integrity). This is usually done silently.

This seems to be a description of Rav Breiter's "taking a reckoning" and if done silently could be conducted after the bedtime prayers. So I tried that approach, and guess what, I fell asleep in the middle of it everytime. That obviously wasn't going to work, so I kept the accounting silent but inserted it just prior to the final brocha and that seems to be working well.

As a side note, A Simple Jew has a review, of Rav Bergman's book on his blog. I would also recommend this book and not just because Rav Bergman quotes from Scarlet Begonias and a number of other Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia songs.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Seeing is Believing

Relating to my comments on binding oneself to the Tzaddiks (see the post of Oct. 28), I came across Reb Noson's comment on Likutey Moharan 17:1:

Anything which one sees with the eyes makes more of an impression on his soul than his merely knowing it intellectually, without actually viewing it, as is explained in the writings. For example: When a person is told about the king's greatness, even though he knows these things clearly, his soul is not moved to fear the king as much as when, with his own eyes, he sees the king's greatness

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Little Rebbetzin Critiques NPR

Following the broadcast of an opinion piece, by NPR commentator Aaron Freeman, comparing Judaism and particle theory, the little rebbetzin issued the following rebuttal:
Paraphrasing Einstein, the little rebbetzin opens with:
"That's not true, G-d doesn't throw dice out all over the top of the sun."
And closes with: "Those people aren't telling the truth, G-d is not a stranger, everybody knows G-d, ...well...everybody knows His name!"

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Play that Funky Music, White Boy

This is a learning about the shofarot, a little late for this Rosh Hashanah, but maybe just a little early for next Elul. I have added some explanatory comments in parenthesis.

From the pritzker ed. of the zohar, 1:114b

"Come and see: Similarly, on Rosh Hashanah - when judgment looms over the world - he (the satan) stands poised to accuse. So Israel must arouse (divine compassion) with a shofar, arousing a sound blended of fire (gevurah), water (chesed), and air (tiferet), becoming one (the breath that sounds the shofar is warm, moist air, symbolizing the combination of the three sefirot just mentioned), trumpeting that sound from the shofar. The sound ascends to the throne of judgment(shekinah), impinges on it and ascends. As soon as this sound arrives from below, the voice of Jacob (tiferet) is attuned above, and the blessed Holy One is aroused to compassion. For just as Israel arouses below a single sound blended of fire, water, and air, issuing as one from the shofar, so too above (binah) a shofar is aroused, and that sound blended of fire, water, and air harmonizes - one issuing below, one above: so the world harmonizes compassion prevails (based on the principle that any action in this world is met by an equal or greater reaction from the higher worlds). Then the accuser is confounded. Whereas he expects to accuse the world and prevail in judgment, once he sees compassion aroused, he becomes confounded, his strength sapped, unable to do anything. So the blessed Holy One judges the world compassionately. For if you say that judgment is eliminated, not so! Rather, compassion joins judgment(tiferet unites with Shekinah), and the world is judged compassionately. ....So the blessed Holy One judges Israel compassionately, pities them, and makes Himself available throughout those ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to receive all those who return to Him...."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

How's Your Kavannah?

Shavua Tov.
Today I was learning in the Yershualmi, Berachos, Shottenstein ed.; and came across the following passage: 49B
R' Eliezer says: If one makes his Prayer a fixed recitation, his Prayer is not a genuine supplication. R' Abahu said in the name of R' Elazar: As long as one does not recite his Prayer as one who reads from a letter - i.e. in a dry, unemotional manner - his Prayer is not regarded as a fixed recitation.
The parallel text in the Bavli, 29B reads:
What is the meaning of fixed? R' Yaakov bar Idi said in the name of R' Oshaya: Anyone whose Prayer is like a burden on him.

The elucidation comments:
he does not recite the Prayer in a supplicatory manner, meaning in a pleading tone, like one begging for mercy...This is what is meant by "as one who reads from a letter"; i.e. he does not pray in tones of pleading and supplication.... Alternatively (this) describes a person who does not concentrate on the words of Prayer...Others explain that this refers to one who recites Prayer quickly
and in the Bavli:
His attitude is that of one who is saddled with a chore and seeks to be done with it..Alternatively, he manifests such an attitude by praying at a hurried pace

For those of us whose understanding of Hebrew is limited, but still want to daven in lashon kodesh, this can be a problem. One can easily end up merely repeating sounds without comprehending the meaning behind them and thus fail to put feeling into Prayer. Of course even when praying in one's native tongue, it is easy to slip into the "davening by rote" routine. Should a person not daven in lashon kodesh, if their understanding of the language is somewhat lacking, to avoid as much as possible a "fixed recitation?"

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"Oh You Mean Your Drainpipe!" -a quote from the little rebbetzin

The Little Rebbetzin

So, I was a little nervous about reaching parsha Lech Lecha again since last year while reviewing the parsha with the little rebbetzin, who was then four years old, I was asked the meaning of the word circumcised, and had to try to explain it. Since the final chapter of the parsha repeats that word about 30 times I didn't think it would slip by no matter how fast I tried to read through that section. Well, we read all the way through to the end and I was just getting ready to congratulate myself when I heard the dreaded words, "Daddy what is circumcision?" I tried, "Don't you remember from when I explained it last year?" No, she didn't. So I bumbled my way through the explanation about the cutting and removing the skin over the end and remembering we had just watched Ushpizin used that as a reference:
Me: "Remember at the end of the movie when they were all dancing in the shul with the little baby?"
LR: "Yes, I do"
Me: "Well that little boy had just been circumcised."
LR: "And they were all happy that he was finally able to pee!"