Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ashrei Teaches us about our Mission (part 2): Manifesting the Mission

Did you ever wonder where the praises of the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh come from? Did the rabbis make them up? How did they know when to stop? The Talmud in Berachot 33b tells the following story: A man approached the lectern and began to compose his own praise of God in the repetition of the Amidah prayer. He started with the standard “Lord who is great, heroic, awe-inspiring,” but then continued with “mighty, powerful, fearful, strong, courageous, revered…” As the individual ran out of praises, Rav Chanina rebuked him, stating, “Have you concluded your praising of your Master? Rather only the verses which Moshe spoke are we permitted to recite...". In this vein we would expect the praises in the first blessing to be an exact quote of Moshe in the Torah. And indeed the first four words do just that--“Lord who is great, heroic, awe-inspiring,” but then one extra phrase is presented, el elyon.
Moshe was not the originator of this term we use to describe God, in fact no Jew did! It is a quote from a non-Jew.
Can you imagine that we would have to resort to quoting non-Jews in our own Shemoneh Esreh, in the first blessing no less? Yet, that is exactly what happens and I think for a very good reason.
The author of this phrase is Makli-Tzedek, king of Shalem, who, after seeing Avram's actions in the battle of the four kings against the five, was so inspired with his behaviour that he brought out bread and wine and made a blessing to the "el elyon, owner of the heavens and earth".
Why would the rabbis use this appellation to describe an attribute of God in our own prayers? The answer, I think, stems from the previous blog and the understanding that when Avram sanctifies the name of God and spreads it to the point that other nations not only acknowledge Him but praise Him and bless His name--then Avram is fulfilling his mission and the world became a bit more in tune with God.
The Torah recognized and therefore recorded this profound event as a reminder of how Avram fulfilled his mission and charged us to walk in his footsteps and attempt to spread the name of God to more and more nations of the world.
Yitro is the next personality who is influenced by Moshe, by God and by the children of Israel. Ignoring the question of whether he converted or not, the mere fact that he understood the greatness of God from the actions of the exodus, the splitting of the sea, but also the battle with Amalek, shows us that even in wartime and against our enemies, we can impact the minds of the righteous and ultimately of all the nations of the world.
I think this is the mission which is presented in psalm 145--Ashrei. It is about finding your relationship with God and then embarking on a mission to spread God consciousness throughout the world so that other nations will join you in praise and in blessing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ashrei Teaches us about Our Mission (part 1)

"Our Mission"

Can one truly make a sweeping statement like "this is what our purpose in life is about"? It would be too arrogant to unabashedly and confidently state as a fact that I know what God expects from us. Or do we hide behind that false modesty in order to never have to confront ourselves with such a major idea in our lives. Perhaps the exact think we must investigate and continually reassess is our very nature and our capacity to truly change this world.

Nevertheless, perhaps hints in Torah and throughout our history might give us that glimpse and teach us what it is we are doing here in this world. When asking Jews what their purpose in this world is, they respond in several ways:

1. To get closer to God. (I am not sure what that means. Along the lines with 'becoming more spiritual and holy', etc. Often to describe ambiguous feelings we resort to ambiguous words).

2. To be a good person. (Also too general and undefined, and quite subjective for that matter)

3. To be a servant of God. (See 1)

4. To perform mitzvot. (Is that the end or a means to something greater?)

5. To learn, live, love, or be Torah! (Again this is, while trying not to sound heretical, a means to something not necessarily an end unto itself.)

So, what then is it all about if I have rejected all of the above? Clearly one cannot reject any of the above answers as extremely vital to one's life, but perhaps I can crystallize the components into one sweeping mission built on two words--chesed and emet (kindness and truth).

Another way to state these two foundational principles is: chesed=social consciousness; emet=absolute truth, or God consciousness. The two in this world must go hand in hand. At the dawn of creation there was Adam and Eve alone. They epitomized an 'I' existence, never actually speaking to each other and not acknowledging others in society, Cain killed Abel, leading the way for generations of self-involved pleasure seekers. A world recognizing God but not recognizing social consciousness--chessed--must be destroyed.

The generation which emerged out of the ark learned their lesson and became quite harmonious. Led by the inclusionary attitude of Noach towards his family this new world showed real promise in terms of social interaction and responsibility. Yet, it seems as if a trade off was necessary. Once they engaged in chesed they rejected emet. This is evidenced by the story of the Tower of Babel, at least according to Rashi's interpretation of focusing on themselves and waging war with God.

As a result of a world which is unable to find the proper balance between these two fundamental poles God chose to create a world within the world, a nation whose mission would be to restore the delicate balance of chesed and emet.Next blog I will show the various biblical personalities who exemplified this hallowed mission through the years and then show how this is reflected in Tehillim of King David.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Ashrei Code

There’s Davinci, the Matrix, and the Genome, all codes which (fact or fiction) reveal a fundamental and powerful idea about life and history. None of them, however, compare to the underlying message of the Ashrei code! Hidden between the lines of the famous psalm (145) David sought to reveal the ultimate secret—the purpose of life.

It was not for naught that our sages considered Psalm 145 as the choicest of all, there is a qualitative dimension which sets it apart from all the rest. For this reason Chazal set out to accomplish two things in order to embed in this psalm the mystique, the sanctity, and the attraction to become one of the most recited psalms in Jewish history.

First, they declared it as such. They chose one psalm from all of David’s songs, one prayer from all of Tanach and they praised it, raised it, setting it above the rest. First the Talmud (Berachot 4b) entertains the notion that the acrostic is key to its importance. The message is that the psalm is special not only for what it says, but for how it says it! (Method over message).
But when challenged by psalm 119 which has the acrostic eightfold, it offers a second approach—the content, namely the powerful dimension of God's infinite lovingkindness--verse פ. This verse and what it represents teaches us that substance plays the crucial role in determining its status. (Message over method).

This answer, too, is rejected by means of a similar verse in psalm 136 (noten lechem lechol basar), Chazal conclude—it must be a unique combination of the two (Message And Method).

Poetry often focuses on one aspect or the other. One might lean to the form of the poetic manner--its rhyme, its word play, alliteration, etc. Alternatively, the complex message embedded in the poem might be the key factor disregarding many strictly method oriented motifs. Perhaps an ideal poem can accurately synthesize the two schools of poetry and balance the intellectual and the aesthetic together. This is the intention of king David in psalm 145!

Secondly, within the psalm itself, or better, in transmitting the pure psalm to liturgy they added on a prefix and a suffix, two verses before, and one to conclude. What should be noted is not only the content of the additional verses but the simple first and last letter of the prayer—אשרי...הללויה. This one psalm, hint Chazal, is a microcosm for all of Tehillim which begins psalm 1 with the word Ashrei, and ends psalm 150 with the word Halleluya. One step beyond is to theorize that Tehillim itself is a microcosm of all of Tanach and ultimately the mission of man in this world.

The explanation of this idea is the subject of part 2...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Portrait of Metaphysical Fortune

A successful poem will sometimes enable you to close your eyes and envision the message in your mind. You conjure up the idea with your own palette, style and background. In so doing, the poet becomes your partner in conveying a shared truth. The importance of the mental picture is high on King David's list as he dedicates the third and fourth verses of Psalms on such a picture which sparks our imagination. After praising the 'Ish'(average individual), he begins the portrait as follows:

והיה כעץ שתול על פלגי מים אשר יתן פריו בעתו ועלהו לא יבול וכל אשר יעשה יצליח לא כן הרשעים כי אם כמץ אשר תדפנו רוח "And he shall be like the tree firmly planted by the banks of the river whose fruit come in the proper season and whose leaves never wither and all he does he will succeed.
Not so with regard to the wicked for they are like the chaff that flies away in the wind."

The insertion of the simile (a comparing of two unlike objects) reflects the importance with which the poet wanted to enforce the notion of the reward of the righteous versus the punishment of the wicked. This fits in to our theme that the psalm is about the average individual who is struggling to avoid the temptation of the wicked, as there is no better stumbling block than the unsettling vision of the righteous suffering while the wicked succeeding. The writer must convince us that this equation is ultimately false before expecting our adherence.

For this reason we are asked to imagine the corollary to righteous living. Picture in your mind a large cedar tree entrenched by the bank of a river. Consider its roots which find a constant supply of nourishment from the fertile earth and its luscious, sustaining fruit always appearing in their proper time. On the one hand we are awed by the presence of this tree and we appreciate its longevity and consistency. On the other hand we must note that in order for the tree to reach its impressive state it requires years, decades, and even generations. Once it achieves its grandeur it will endure and provide shade, fruit, life for centuries to come, but one still needs patience and perspective until one arrives at that gets there.

Now consider a grain of wheat. It it planted, harvested and turned into a scrumptious donut in months. Its reward is almost immediate, the waiting time is next to nothing. However, while it delivers the product, it loses itself during the process. The chaff is lost in the wind, the wheat is crushed down, and one needs to start the process all over again in the next season. The chaff is useless, the pleasure from the wheat, ephemeral.

When you contrast a stalk of wheat with a magnificent tree you begin to realize there is no comparison and while one requires patience ultimately it is worth the wait. The same applies to one's life and pursuit of meaning and fortune. Sure there is a quick route to physical pleasure, but what of a long lasting consistent sense of purpose and enrichment?

A righteous person builds, develops and consistently shapes his life and his family so that the next generation will emerge strong, vibrant, confident, fortunate! They will have been sustained by the simple but consistent river nutrients and will appreciate the deep roots of their tradition and their mission. In this context the end of the simile presents us with an interesting turn--it switches back into the individual.

"And everything he does he will be successful".

It seems as if the poet wanted us to enter the surreal for the dramatic effect of the picture and then seamlessly have us return to real life as if to say our dreams can turn into a consistent, protracted, generational, reality. NOT so with the wicked. For they revel in the moment, but the moment will be their only consolation.

For the average individual who struggles with good and evil, this psalm presents for him a powerful intellectual and mental picture of the true rewards of a righteous life. He is rest assured by the psalm and willing to make the sacrifice, to live a meaningful existence, a spiritual existence and ultimately a fortunate one!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Finding Fortune Part 2

Intensification is a powerful poetic tool used quite often in Biblical poetry. According to Bible scholar Dr. Robert Alter, verses in the Torah which create a parallelism in the second stanza are involved in an intensifying of the message (see Mercer’s Dictionary of the Bible, page 698). It engages the reader, heightens the drama and intensifies the message. The idea presented is that when we enhance a message and emphasize, it resonates with us and we internalize it more.

It is therefore somewhat mystifying that in the first few verses of Psalms, when we would expect intensification and a strong progression, we find the exact opposite.

אשרי האיש אשר לא הלך בעצת רשעים ובדרך חטאים
לא עמד ובמושב לצים לא ישב
כי אם בתורת ה חפצו ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה

"Fortunate is the one who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the path of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of insolent; rather the Torah is his desire, meditating on it day and night."

First off, the praise of the individual is all in the negative—fortunate is he who did not… why not simply write “fortunate is the one who walked with righteous, stood with pious? Secondly, the reverse progression of walking, standing, sitting and finally meditating presents us with a feeling of paralysis. Is the praise upon the individual who does nothing??

Perhaps the two points converge; the average person wakes up and, as the day begins, is bombarded by unplanned movement; such activities void of premeditation are a breeding ground for sin. Without considering, the temptation of joining the group, hanging out, standing around—whether it is a water cooler at the office, or outside the sanctuary during the sermon, sitting at the coffee house or talking with friends at recess—is quite formidable. Indeed, many of us are so busy in our lives that we might fail to consider the steps we take and the company in which we find ourselves. This leads to an existence that is extremely busy, filled with activity, but ultimately uninspired.

The psalmist recognized the struggle of the average person who just has to go with the flow in order to end up far from the righteous path, therefore the praise is in the negative, acknowledging the strength of the one who stayed away from the most natural and least taxing action.

The fortunate soul has already passed on the sinning group walking, veered from the people standing around and speaking lashon hara, and chosen to reject the frivolous activities of the seated assembly. That person thought things through, that individual found strength in the attitude of Torah as his/her delight, meditating upon it day and night. The intellectual experience of the fortunate ones determines the nature of their day’s endeavors.

Judaism certainly believes in taking action. Immobility is an unhealthy life philosophy; however when it comes to choosing a course of action for our day, the psalm comes to reward us for thinking first, acting upon those thoughts and ultimately choosing the right direction in our lives.