How Do We Pray to G-d?

What is the proper way in which to pray to G-d? At the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we explored prayer as not only something to do at services but as something to make part and parcel of our practice throughout the day. Often many of us (myself included) can get bored in prayer and pray by rote. That of course is not the ideal way to pray to  G-d, which bears forth the question “what is?”

One approach is given by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav in his work Likkutei Moharan. In commenting on the verse beginning this week’s Torah portion, ואתחנן על ה בעת ההיא לאמר “and I entreated G-d at that moment saying…”[1] Rebbe Nahaman asserted דהנה אדם צריך להתפלל בדבקות גדול להשם יתברך, “A person needs to pray clinging to G-d.” Is it always possible to pray in such a state? Rebbe Nahman recognizes that it is not, continuingאך אם לפעמים יש עת, שאינו יכול להפלל בדבקות, אל יאמר: איני מתפלל כלל, מאחר שאינו יכול לכון כראוי ולהתפלל בדבקות, והתפילה אינו מקובלת, “If at times he’s not able to pray clinging to G-d, he should not say ‘Since I cannot intend myself as is proper and pray clinging to G-d, the prayer will not be received.” Rather what one should do is entreat to G-d תמיד, בין בדבקות בין אינו בדבקות, “always, whether or not he is able to cling to G-d.”[2]

Rebbe Nahman demonstrates here why Hasidut was so populist: it recognized the limitations of people. He knew that people could not always pray directly clinging to G-d, for there are far too many distractions pulling us away from G-d and toward worldly concerns. Rather than admonish his Hasidim for their lack of connection and concentration, Nahman said ‘That’s ok, no problem’[3] as he recognized that it was better to pray when diverted than to not pray at all. In so doing, he made people feel good about their efforts rather than guilty that they did not do better.

Rebbe Nahman continued describing what it is like to pray while clinging to G-d. He commented that Moses prayed before G-d בעת ההיא, at a particular time. What is that time? He writes הינו בעת שאזכה להתפלל בדבקות, שהוא בחינת שגורה תפלתי בפי, “It was a time when he merited to pray clinging to G-d, and that the words were fluent in his mouth.”[4] Have you ever had a time when words flow clearly from your mouth, when ‘it all just clicks?’ That is precisely what Rebbe Nahman is describing about Moses being before G-d. In our parsha, Moses is pleading with G-d to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, pouring out his heart onto his sleeve, begging for just one step into that special land. That level of intensity and devotion in one’s words is what Rebbe Nahman is arguing each and every one of us should have when we pray to G-d.

I know that’s extremely difficult if not impossible to do, and Rebbe Nahman does as well, for he states that when we cannot achieve such a state we should still pray and try to get there the next time. One of the fortunate things about praying three times a day is we get ample opportunities to pray to G-d and to make the words from our lips genuine and heartfelt rather than merely paying lip service to our obligation. That is what we must strive to do. We are now in the period between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, a time of joy but also of introspection. During this time let each of us strive to make our words, our pleas and our entreaties aligned with what we feel in our hearts. In so doing, may we attempt to arrive closer to the level of Moshe and may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable before G-d.[5]

[1] Deuteronomy 3:23

[2] Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan, 99 ד”ה ואתחנן אל ה בעת ההיא לאמר

[3] Something my teacher, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, always says in meditation when our minds wander.

[4] Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan, 99  ד”ה בעת ההיא לאמר

[5] Based on Psalm 19:14

Take Us Back

השיבנו ה אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם “G-d return us to You and we shall return; renew our days as in the days of old.”[1] We just chanted these words along with Cantor Cohen when the Torah was returned. Tonight we will recite these words twice along with Marc when we conclude the Book of Lamentations. What are we nostalgic for? It is clear on Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as in our daily liturgy, that we are mourning the lack of a central place of worship for all Jews. Similarly, each time we return the Torah, as we just did, we are mourning the fact that we need to say goodbye to the Torah until the next time we are privileged to read from it.

The nostalgia is absent from the Hasidic reading of this verse, however. In Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev’s commentary on the Bible, he writes מאי כקדם, what is the significance of “as of old?” His conclusion is based on a passage from Deuteronomy, ועתה ישראל מה ה אלקיך שואל מעמל כי אם ליראה, “Now, O Israel, what does G-d demand of you? Only this: to fear G-d.”[2] He continues אין “ועתה” אלא תשובה; “There is no ‘now’ except to indicate a moment of repentance.

The return (נשובה) thus is not a return to a physical locale or time-travelling back to the past. Rather, it is an act of repentance designed to bring us back to G-d. Kedushat Levi continues, כל אדם ואדם מישראל מחויב להאמין באמונה שלימה שבכל רגע ורגע מקבל חיות מהבורא ברוך הוא, “Every Israelite is obligated to believe with complete faith that at every moment he receives vitality from the Blessed Creator.” Why? כי בעת שעושה תשובה, מאמין שהוא כעת בריה חדשה, “for at the moment that he repents, he believes that he has become a new creation.[3]

Thus in returning to G-d, we ourselves become renewed. Through doing the hard work of changing our behavior for the better, we become a different person. That’s not to say we can’t regress but rather that we strive each and every day to renew ourselves, becoming better people.

Tomorrow evening, when Tisha B’Av concludes, we will begin a seven week counting, similar to the counting of the Omer. This time, however, instead of counting to the giving of the Torah, we will be counting to the Jewish New Year of 5779. It is a great time to intensify our process of introspection, to see what we can be doing better and how moment-by-moment we can revitalize and renew ourselves. The hardest thing as we get older is that (we believe) it becomes harder to change, or who we are becomes more ingrained. The lesson of Kedushat Levi is to peel away that cynicism, believing that we are truly a different person, with infinite potential at each moment.

Between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah we will read seven Haftarot from the latter portion of Isaiah called the שבעה דנחמתא, the seven Haftarot of consolation. The message ingrained in these Haftarot is to believe that there is always the opportunity for change and for renewal, even when it feels remote and like a pipe dream. As the Talmud teaches us, [4]אמר ריב”ל (למשיח) אימתי אתי? מר אמר לו היום עם תשמע לקולו. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked the Messiah, “When will you come.” He responded, “today, if you will listen to His voice.”

Today let us listen to the hidden messages we often gloss over or miss. May we look for the signs as to what we are meant to do today to make a difference or to change our behavior for the better. May we also look for opportunities to do Teshuva, not only in the sense of righting a wrong but equally as important to look for opportunities to modify our behavior and our thoughts for the better, so that we will be happier and feel more fulfilled. In so doing, may G-d take us back to Him, bringing us close in joy and gladness.

[1] Lamentations 5:21

[2] Deuteronomy 10:12

[3] Kedushat Levi on Eicha

[4] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a based of Psalm 95:7

It’s All About the Journey

One of my favorite classic rock bands is Journey. At our Dueling Pianos event, I requested their song which Shake Rattle and Roll said was the 3rd most popular request: Don’t Stop Believing. Parshat Masei, the second of our double portion, is all about the journey taken. The forty-two stops undertaken by the Israelites over the course of their journey from Egypt to Israel are all enumerated. Why are these steps mentioned? To indicate that the goal is not where one is at any particular moment but rather how one got there.

Rashi asks, “Why were these journeys recorded?” He answers (quoting from Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan’s commentary), “To make G-d’s benevolence known. For, although He decreed to move them about and cause them to wander in the wilderness, do not say that they wandered and were moved about from journey to journey all forty years and had no rest-for there are only forty-two journeys here. Subtract fourteen, which took place in the first year, before the punishment (to wander for forty years) their journey from Raamses until they reached Ritmah, where the spies were dispatched…exclude from there further eight journeys which took place after Aaron’s death, from Mount Hor to the plains of Moav during the fortieth year, and it is found that throughout the thirty eight years they took only twenty journeys.[1]

Twenty journeys in thirty-eight years-that’s not so many. At the same time, one can assert that the journeys were so long that they accompanied the entirety of the thirty-eight years. Gur Aryeh, a supercommetnary on Rashi, wrote that the Torah enumerates the journeys, since as the places were well-known it became obvious that the route was easily traveled in a short time.[2] Whereas the places are not well-known any more (I don’t know if anyone knows where Tahat or Almon Divlateimah are) they apparently were in biblical times which is why enumerating them demonstrates the journey’s route.

In addition, it is helpful to have all the stops detailed because it shows one looking back all that Israel accomplished. Today we end the Book of Numbers and thus the journeys of our people before reaching the Promised Land. Deuteronomy is called Mishneh Torah, Moses’ discourse in repeating Israel’s journeys, often putting his own spin on them. In looking back on Israel’s stops, we can see how far our ancestors came and how they grew as a nation-though often with “growing pains.” Similarly, a married couple “reminiscing through the years” reencounters specific landmark moments in their lives. Some were times of intense challenge, others points of exuberance. By having those stops in our journey through life documented, as our ancestors’ stops through the desert were, a couple can reflect on how much they’ve grown and how far they’ve come, just as Israel could do so by seeing a listing of all their stops. These stops, just place names or words, might not have any significance for us, but they certainly did for our ancestors.

Rob and Mar-you are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime (literally)-marriage. Getting married is a half hour ceremony; being married takes constant work each and every day. There will be highs and lows in your relationship. Always remember that you are on a journey together as a team. If you make a mistake, learn from it and move on. If one of you is faltering, let the other step up as support.  When you look back after forty-two years of blissful marriage full of adventures, twists and turns and stops along the way, just like the forty-two stops made by our ancestors,  you’ll not only see where you are at that moment but how you got there, and I hope the process will make you smile. Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! So that we can celebrate together, let us turn to Page 838 and read responsively.

[1] Rashi on Numbers 33:1 ד”ה אלה מסעי

[2] Gur Aryeh on Numbers 33:1 ד”ה אלה מסעי

Reconciling Competing Principles

There’s an old joke about two people who come to have something adjudicated before a rabbi. One presents his side of the story and the rabbi replies, “You’re right.” The other presents his case, completely contradicting his fellow, and the rabbi replies, “You’re right.” The rabbi’s wife, in utter surprise, says “It’s impossible for both of them to be correct,” to which the rabbi replies, “You’re right.”

Related to this joke, we have the Baraita of Rabbi Yishmael which we read every morning at minyan.[1] The last of Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 principles is שתי כתובים המכחישים זה את זה, two verses which directly contradict one another. Unlike the joke, however, there is a resolution, as the principle continues עד שיבוא הכתוב השלישי ויכריע ביניהם, a third verse will come and adjudicate between them.  The third verse will generally put limitations on one or both of the other verses, saying that one or both of them only applies in a particular case or situation.

Enter Parshat Pinhas which at first glance appears to be a major victory for feminists. After the daughters of Zelophehad complain to Moses about their desire to inherit and he brings their case before G-d to adjudicate it, we read: “כן בנות צלפחד דוברות-The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers.”[2]

Next week in Parshat Masei we will read about the repercussions of that decision. Members of the tribe of Menasseh, of which Zelophehad was a member, said “G-d commanded my liege to assign the land to the Israelites as shares by lot, but G-d further commanded my liege to assign the share of our kinsman Zelophehad to his daughters. Now, if they marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and be added to the portion of the tribe into which they marry; thus our allotted portion will be diminished.”[3] Beginning with the same words he used in rendering his original decision, Moses replies: “כן מטה בני-יוסף דוברים-The plea of the Josephite tribe is just. This is what G-d has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may marry anyone they wish, only into a clan of their father’s tribe shall they marry.”[4]

Just like the joke about both parties being right, Moses is saying that both Zelophehad’s daughters and the members of the tribe of Menasseh are both right, even though they contradict one another. On the one hand, Moses recognizes the right of the daughters of Zelophehad to marry whomever they wish, while concurrently he obligates them to marry within their tribe. The Talmud notes this contradiction, and suggests that while in principle a daughter who inherits her father’s estate is free to marry whomever she pleases, in reality that rule did not apply to the daughters of Zelophehad and the women of their generation. After all, it only specified that the daughters could inherit, not that they could marry whomever they wanted.[5] This answer seems like a cop-out to me, as it puts a limitation on Zelophehad’s daughters’ inheritance that was not mentioned when Moses brought their case before G-d. Nevertheless, it is the rabbis’ attempt to reconcile how both Zelophehad’s daughters and the tribal elders of Menasseh can both be right: that the daughters can inherit while concurrently Menasseh will not lose any of its land.

What is the lesson that we can take from this? The Torah is full of conflicting and competing principles. On one hand it wants to ensure that women have the right to inherit; on the other it needs to make sure that one tribe’s land does not become reduced because of a daughter inheriting, as the land passed from father to son. The way in which this is reconciled is to require Zelophehad’s daughters to marry within their tribe.

It is difficult to relate to this in an age when we want to protect all of our children. We write wills stating that our estate will be divided equally between our children, regardless of whether they are sons or daughters-and if we don’t, there’s often trouble after we’re gone. We also try to operate our business affairs in an egalitarian way. At the same time, it is easier for us to do this now as that we are not concerned about the apportionment of the Land of Israel or in treating each tribe equally.

At times we read passages in the Bible that appear to be contradictory: in one source the daughters should inherit; in another the land will pass through their husbands. Whenever we find a contradiction we attempt to reconcile it through looking at what the rabbis have said. At times we might find a satisfactory answer, at others we might feel the answer is weak or that it does not work for us in this day and age. The important thing is that we act like the Talmudic rabbis, doing our homework and try to reconcile the contradictions rather than simplistically throwing our hands in the air and saying the Torah makes no sense. Let us take time this summer to study Torah and in the process may we reconcile some things in our learning that previously seemed contradictory or irreconcilable.

[1] Sifra 1

[2]Numbers 27:7-9

[3] Numbers 36:2-3

[4] Numbers 36:5-6

[5] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 120a

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Before my time there was a movie called See No Evil, Hear No Evil about a blind man and a deaf man who become friends. They work together, having each other’s back as they navigated the difficult world. They challenged by a shooting in the store in which they worked for which they were considered suspects. Through a comedic turn of events they determined the criminals and brought them to justice.

That movie reminds me of a line I’d like to discuss in this morning’s Torah portion. In one of Balak’s blessings to Israel, he says לא הביט און ביעקב ולא ראה עמל בישראל ה אלקנו עמו ותרועת מלך בו, “One does not see evildoers in Jacob or transgression in Israel; Adonai his G-d, is with them, and he has the king’s acclaim.”[1] How can we take this seriously? We know that there are plenty of evildoers in Israel, from Bernie Madoff to Harvey Weinstein. What does it mean that G-d is with us? That doesn’t stop Jews from doing evil.

Rashi says this can’t possibly be what the text means. Rather it is not that one does not see evildoers but rather that G-d does not look at (הביט) evildoers. כשהן עוברין על דבריו, אינו מדקדק אחריכם להתבונן באוניות שלהם ועמלן שהן עוברין על דתו “When they transgress his commandments, he does not pursue them exactingly by reflecting on the wickedness of their wrongdoing of their violation of His doctrines.”[2]

Rashi is saying of course Jews err: we’re human like everyone else. There will be times when each of us engages in wrongdoing. What is important to recognize is that wrongdoing has occurred, to strive to change and then to let it go. G-d will not pursue us exactingly for our misdeeds. He will notice them but does not dwell on them. In other words, He gives us the opportunity to change our ways without overly punishing us for what we did.

When I brought up the title See No Evil, Hear No Evil, I was being facetious. I was not trying to say that G-d doesn’t see what we do wrong but rather that G-d has רחמים, readily forgiving us for our actions when we fall short. In so doing, G-d demonstrates that the most important thing is not to avoid wrongdoing, for no one can do that, but rather not to dwell on what we did wrong; rather to focus on what we can do to improve and change. For all his faults, Balaam saw that G-d acts with רחמים towards Israel, actively pursuing good on their behalf and giving them ample opportunity to succeed. The lesson is that when we do wrong, to engage in תשובה and move on, rather than to assume that G-d will never forgive us. Often we are the ones who look most harshly at ourselves and our actions, playing over and over again in our heads what we did wrong rather than working to change our faults and letting go of our mistakes. If G-d can see past the bad that we have done, all the more so must we be able to do so. May we work at not seeing evil in ourselves, that we are good and have infinite potential to do good in the world.

Today we are also celebrating the Friends, familiar faces but new members at the Jericho Jewish Center. Both Phil and Pearl Friend saw unspeakable evils in the world as the Nazis committed atrocities against our people. Phil liberated Pearl the day before the Nazis were planning to eliminate her and her mother and last month this young, vibrant woman celebrated her 90th birthday. Last year this “power couple” celebrated their 70th anniversary at the Jericho Jewish Center. With all the atrocities that they saw, Phil and Pearl could have stopped living yet they did the opposite: coming to America, starting the Key Foods supermarket in Astoria and raising a family. For the latter, we are especially grateful, as their daughter Barbara is the heart and soul (as well as the pulse) of the Jericho Jewish Center. Pearl and Phil-you understood that in spite of evil you would live each day to the fullest, and for that we are thrilled. Mazal Tov on becoming new members at the Jericho Jewish Center, and thank you for already giving back to your new congregational home through sponsoring today’s Kiddush.

[1] Numbers 23:21

[2] Rashi on Numbers 23:21 ד”ה לא-הביט עון ביעקב