Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Divine Reaction

עננו ה' עננו
A Call for a Divine Reaction

1. Answer us God, Answer us 2. On our day of fasting 3. For we are in great turmoil
1. Do not incline to our evil 2. Do not hide Your face from us 3. Do not ignore our pleas
1. Be close to our salvation 2. grant us kindness in consoling us 3. Before we call out, answer!

This little poem of three stanzas across and three down has a consistent rhyme and meter. It is a bit strange in that the nature of the prayer is a plea for salvation yet the author chose to formulate it in a poetic style.

The poem begins and ends with its leading word--anenu, answer us revealing the author's focus from which he never veers. To ask for an answer or rather a 'response' implies there is an initial call on the part of Israel. What else would God be answering?

In truth while we associate answering in a verbal manner, this poem refers to a physical response. We say to God that we have initiated an action of teshuva, our fasting which represents an active pursuit of God amidst our turmoil, we ask, almost expect from God a reaction--anenu!

The first line stays in the positive and ignores the ultimate root for our necessity to fast (almost as if to cut off the fourth parallel stanza). The second line goes to the double negative telling God not to incline towards our negative; not to hide from us, not to ignore our supplications. The final line returns to the positive asking God to save, console, Answer!

This prayer could only be recited while in the midst of fasting. There is a major difference between the prayer of an objective observer and a subjective sufferer (I learned this from Rabbi Carmy about the difference between Isaiah and Jeremiah).

When we are suffering and we act instead of remain passive the poet tells us that we are justified in calling out to God and even demanding a reaction on His side. We are not silent, we tell God, nor have we been passive. Our fast represents our actions of returning to God, introspection, ultimately of a movement towards our spirit and away from our physicality.

We turn to God in this state and only in this state and beseech--Anenu, answer, react, save us, עננו

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Poetic Paradox

Life is poetry.
It can be inspiring or boring.
You can run through it and ignore its complexity and majesty,
or you can slow down to analyze, appreciate--internalize the countless and timeless messages.

Poetry is not a four letter word. It is not unreachable; it can belong to all of us.
When I was a kid I never read a book! I confess, I was more into sports, hanging out, TV, and socialization (nice way to say, girls!).

I never stopped to consider the poetry of my existence; the rhythmic movements of my body; the consistent inconsistency of my day; the irony, symmetry, inclusios and dramatic events of my life.
I just lived monotonously, day by day. What a waste!

Imagine if I had sensed it then. If I had perspective then, during my youth, during the vitality of my incipient existence... I might have been infused with creativity, expanded horizons, engaged my spirit on higher levels, connected with so many more ebullient souls--I might have soared.


Or, perhaps I would have nevertheless been depressed. Perhaps all that multi-dimensional self-expression would have rendered me lonely, distant, introverted. Maybe too much cerebral activity would have suffocated me; too much creativity would have left me ungrounded; too much self-exploration would have inhibited my social networking. Perhaps in the end I would have sunk into a deep despair.

Oh boy, I made a mess. I have self-contradicted!

That's poetry for you. Two readings, two interpretive experiences, but one text, one life.

Which reading is truer? Herein lays the beauty of the poet. Both are true. Both endure, both inspire. A poem is worthless and meaningless without the corroborating reader; without our imagination as we partner with the psalmist and create something new. Through reading and interpreting, the words take on meaning, the ideas materialize, our metaphysical notions morph into reality! Cool.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Week of Psalms; A People's Ultimate Journey

If a week represents a lifetime, with the auspicious beginnings of finding one's place in God's world, recognizing the locale of God's presence and attempting to construct a just society, the middle of the week brings us back to the harsh realities of the world and our oftentimes tenuous existence.

We experience raw evil; we contend with abject hatred, ridicule and scorn at us and our God. It hurts, shames but most of all baffles us. Why would the creator of the world raise up this downtrodden nation only to subject it to mockery and humiliation at the hands of Godless enemies? How does evil triumph? Why are we deserving of such cruelty?

Jewish history in Israel and out is fraught with pain, suffering death and destruction. we are hard-pressed to find a period of serenity, just glimpses of hope in an otherwise consistently disconsolate existence, mostly an exiled one. We are forced in our hour of need to introspect, search for meaning during our bouts of terror and solitude.

Wednesday's psalm begins by crying out to God, lashing out at our enemies but ultimately finds the psalmist forcing himself to dig deep inwards, into our psyche, into our past deeds and sins. Are we being punished? Disciplined? rejected?

At times the pain and suffering subsides but does not disappear; we share a period of relative quiet or even thriving when we begin to normalize our lives and look towards a better future. It is precisely at this point, as we approach the 'end of the week' where an expectation begins to percolate--mashiach is arriving, redemption is upon us. This undeserved quest and demand of redemption is met by anger from the prophets dating back to Jeremiah at the Temple to Ezra during the return to Zion to the Chachamim during the great revolt and so on.

Thursday's message is quite a sobering one with God Himself asking the people if they are truly ready for redemption? Are they indeed worthy of restoring the commonwealth, rebuilding the Temple, raising the scepter of the Lord and fulfilling the prophetic eschatological dreams?

Surely our arrogance is not so great as to expect a full-blown redemption merely because we are asking nicely! A return inwards is required; a revival of practice, of values and mores, of humility and gratitude. All these are prerequisites for the triumphant return to Zion. Until then we must continue to work, pray, carry forward the slow process step by step, and build our nation once again to its glory.

The week does come to an end, though, with Friday and Shabbat's messages mysterious and perplexing. The penultimate inspiration is purely spiritual, removing the human component from the equation--God Reigns! The short poem is replete with the lofty divine images, is the message to be learned that in order to reach our destination we might have to remove the I from the equation? Friday begins with God and concludes with Him (I am first; I am last...). The concluding point reflects the absolute eternal, the infinite One in our world of the finite many, and the ultimate unified cohesive sound which lasts eternally emerges from the multitude of voices (mikolot mayim rabim adirim).

But then as quickly as the song travels heavenward it returns to our earthly realm. Shabbat comes and as the psalm states at the outset, 'it is good to praise God' on such a day. But how do we praise God with the enemy still on our minds? What good is other-worldly praise when we still must contend with 'this-worldly' vicissitudes?

Thus the final psalm represents the removal of the final obstacle before true redemption arrives. Note the amount of times evil is mentioned in this 'Sabbath' psalm. Apparently there is still work to be done, and only through its final demise will the righteous find solace, bringing the era of pain and suffering to a close.

The week represents our story, our history, our journey. Like our checkered history we acknowledge the peaks and nadirs, triumphs and tragedies of our lives. We recognize that as a nation we have never earned a consistent badge of honor, but we also never relented, always finding our place as God's nation, sometimes faltering, sometimes fumbling but always oriented on God, His Torah, our Land and our nation.

I suppose that the somewhat depressing message is a result of our altered state during the 'three weeks', with my scraggly beard and my limited joy. It is a saddening yet inspiring message that trials and tribulations are part and parcel of our Jewish experience but they have never brought us to the rejection of our tradition; the opposite is true. Until we reach that ultimate 'shabbat' we will commemorate the days of sadness looking inwards and attempting to return to be worthy of
the title--Am Hashem, Nation of God.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Story in Shir Shel Yom (Part 1)

Do the seven chosen psalms of the shir shel yom have anything in common? Is there a specific reason that psalms 20, 48, 82, 94, 81, 93 and 92 were chosen as the final song to be sung by the Levites at the end of the morning service?

Avot Derabbi Natan, a Tannaitic addition to the Ethics of the Fathers, offers some thematic unity based on the connection to the days of creation:
"The first day what does he say? To God belongs the earth--for He acquired the world and judges it; the second day? God is great, praised in the City of God...for He divided and ruled over His creations; the third day? God stands amidst the congregation...for He created the sea, the land--and so it continues describing the creation of the sun, moon, stars, animals, Man, etc.

The midrash focuses on the progression of creation but it only uses the first verse of the psalm and it makes only an oblique reference to the psalm. What about the main content of each psalm? Can we offer a different perspective?

Consider the theme of each day:;
Sunday--creation and how man can ascend the mountain of God
Monday--depiction of the ideal place of God, the City on High--Jerusalem.
Tuesday--establishing a justice system and the realization that some judges are corrupt.
Wednesday--confronting evil minded people who mock your ways and laugh at your God.
Thursday--praying for God's immediate revelation and God's sudden response.
Friday--God descends from the heavens and comes down to Man.
Saturday--beginning with praise of God, turns into diatribe of evil, but ultimately evil will dissipate and the righteous will flourish.

I believe the 'shir shel yom' psalms tell a story--our story.
A story about the spiritual intellectual journey we traverse in our lives.
It begins with a seed of revelation--belief in God and the understanding that our revelation is bound by responsibility and rewards, both of which meet at the same concluding point--imitatio dei, emulating God.
Like Abraham of old, our revelation is intertwined with a destination where a high concentration of divine presence presides. Our epic destiny has indeed a home base, one in which we are charged to develop physically and spiritually into a universal sanctuary of spirit and social excellence.
The process requires a system of justice, as any society must have, but one which adheres to a higher standard of ethics and morality.
And yet, we should caution our optimism of our burgeoning redemptive state and recognize that evil still exists and thrives at our expense. We still suffer, sacrifice and are forced to confront such evil without divine support. Our job is to maintain composure especially when crisis strikes.

At some point in the story, though, we falter. We submit to our fears, do not find the courage to continue the struggle, we sin, we turn off the path and spiral down into despair. What happens then? What is our next step and how does God respond to us?

The week marches on and our predicament at its nadir must find a way to resurge.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Poetry of (Amida) Prayer

Shemoneh Esreh has a message for the Jewish People. It is not only a glorified laundry list of Man to God; it also can teach us about ourselves and our destiny. Anshei Knesset Hagedola--the great tribunal of sages--poetically inserted a moving message in the supplication section of the Amidah. This section should be split into two equal sets of six blessings: the first focuses on individual needs of knowledge, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, health, blessing; the second is devoted to nationalist aspirations of redemption.

Ingathering of exiles
Justice system
Enemies from within and without
Restoration of Jerusalem
Messianic resumption of the Davidic line

Were the rabbis in the first centuries after the destruction of the Temple and the exile from the land providing for us a random list of nationalist desires, or were they hinting at a recipe for the return from exile and the re-establishment of the monarchy?

I believe the latter.

Somewhere in the protracted exile the persecuted, wandering Jews misread the code of these six blessings and substituted the process for an acquiescence that only Messiah son of David can miraculously return them to their native land. But the PROGRESSION in these six blessings intimates otherwise.

Consider the process:
First return to the land, naturally, physically. Then, once the Jewish people have returned to their homeland, set up a justice system built on the idyllic partnership of divine inspiration and human application--"Elohim nitzav beadat el, bekerev Elohim yishpot" (God stands firm in the congregation of judges, amidst the judges He discerns".

After we have the people and we begin the process of developing a justice system we will have to contend with schisms, corruptions, and downright evil individuals attempting to torpedo this nascent society. In response and somewhere in the middle of the process we will desire true leaders who are an extension of the builders of the land and the progeny of the returnees to the land.

Finally, after the more physical necessities are in place the time will come to re-establish Zion as God's throne and reignite the Davidic monarchy, paving the way for God's ultimate salvation.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Summing It All Up

Over the course of the year I have been teaching, guiding, administrating and developing a group of girls who came for a year experience Israel. Wide-eyed, open-minded, with a Faustian desire to soak in as much as possible about Israel, I attempted to create an atmosphere of learning, living, and loving Eretz Yisrael.

If I had to sum up the philosophy and actualization of Midreshet Tzvia I would choose psalm 48, verse 9: "kaasher shamanu, ken rainu" "As we have heard, so we have seen". What is so unique about this simple verse?

1 A song, a psalm of the Sons of Korah.
2 Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise,
in the city of our God—His holy mountain.
3 It is beautiful in its loftiness,
the joy of the whole earth.
Mount Zion, the summit of Zaphon, it is
the city of the Great King.
4 God is in her citadels;
He has shown Himself to be her fortress.
5 When the kings joined forces,
when they advanced together,
6 they saw her and were astounded;
they panicked in terror.
7 Trembling seized them there,
pain like that of a woman in the throes of labor.
8 [You destroyed them] like ships of Tarshish
shattered by an east wind.
9 As we have heard,
so have we seen
in the city of the Lord Almighty,
in the city of our God:
God makes her secure forever, selah.
10 In Your temple, God,
we meditate on Your unfailing loving-kindness.
11 Like Your name, God,
Your praise reaches to the ends of the earth;
Your right hand is filled with justice.
12 Let Mount Zion rejoice,
the satellites of Judah be glad
because of Your judgments.
13 Walk around Zion, circle her,
count her towers,
14 consider well her ramparts,
pass through her citadels,
so that You may tell of them to the next generations.
15 For this God is our God forever and ever;
He will lead us eternally.

Psalm 48 is about Israel. It is grammatically divided into past, present and future. After describing the unique qualities of Zion--beautiful, joy of the whole earth, summit of Tzafon, the city of the great king--the psalm records an historical event in which God rained down trepidation and bewilderment to Jerusalem's would-be attackers.

The event could be associated with Abraham's battle against the four kings; Hezekiah's miraculous survival at the hands of Sennacherib; Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks, or many other miraculous events in ancient history.

The psalm then provides us four magical words which anyone touring and learning about Israel experiences day n day out: That which we have learned as being part of ancient history when God overtly protected Jerusalem and the nation inhabiting it--that which we heard, we too have seen in our own modern day, contemporary lives.

Take off the blinders and you will see every corner of Israel as part of this truly remarkable continuous narrative of 'ir Elohim' the city of God, 'ir eloheinu' the city of Our God.

The Psalms concluding message--circle Zion--is the indubitable secret to our victory: circle her, count her towers, consider her ramparts, pass through her citadels. This will enable us to continue to tell the story of Jerusalem, our Jerusalem, God's Jerusalem, for eternity.

At Tzvia we consistently experienced the magic of Israel. Whether through the geography or the history; the social interaction or its creativity; of course through it all using Torah as our supreme guide, I can now confidently say--As we have heard, so too we have seen.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

When I Make Kiddush I think of My Zayde

Every Friday night I think of Zayde. Walking home from shul with him admiring the streets of Yerushalayim; the way he would feign interest in a certain building hiding the fact that he needed to stop and rest; his worn out silk robe; the sound of his dragging slippers as he makes his way to the Shabbat table from the living room; his attempted toss of the velvet challah cover towards the heater just before saying the bracha...and then the Kiddush.

So many memories, yet so many forgotten.

Funny thing about life--we forget stuff, even meaningful stuff. I forget the few serious conversations I had with my mother's father; I forget my first dates with my wife; my children's first steps...not to mention all the Torah I heard, all the wisdom I inherited from my elders.

Of course forgetfullness is a blessing as well. Imagine if all our memories were intact; all our letdowns, all the heartbreak and the tragedy still reverberating in our consciousness.

So I forget a lot about my Zayde-- but not on Friday night. As I stand eyes closed, cup overflowing with grape juice, I nostalgically recall my Zayde in the same position chanting the kiddush. Inevitably, tears would well up in his eyes. "Why", I once asked him, "do you cry during kiddush"? He responded, "I'm crying because when I recite kiddush I close my eyes and think of my father in Poland."

And so, today, surrounded by my family holding the kiddush cup in my hands and reciting the kiddush, I engage in the act of remembering. I remember my Zayde and miss him greatly; I remember the gift of the Shabbat day; I remember what is important in my life;
I remember.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chag Korech Sameach--Happy Sandwich Holiday!

Hillel the Elder used to take the Pesach, Matza, and Marror, roll them together to commemorate the verse 'with Matza and Marror you should eat it. That is called Korech, a sandwich.

The bitter marror; the marror of pain and suffering; the marror of hardship is sandwiched by the tasty paschal lamb and the crunchy Matza.

This message of the sandwich can reflect a truism of our own expressions to God in prayer.
Depending on how one couches the emotion, one's true feelings become clear.

The final psalm of Hallel, indeed the culmination is reached in psalm 118. Yet, if we were to analyze the torso of the psalm, verses 5-18, the bulk of the mizmor, all remind us of the 'marror' experience in the psalmists life: "from the straits I call out to God", "no fear, God will help, I will see my enemies", "encircled by my enemies" (four times in three successive verses!), "I will not fall, I will not die".

However, due to it being sandwiched beginning and ending by genuine praise, thankfulness and joy, we can only surmise that the psalm emits the totality of the author's expression. The inclusio is heightened by the repetition of the verse as the prologue and epilogue: Hodu LaHashem ki tov, ki le'olam chasdo--Be thankful for God's absolute good, His eternal kindness.

A fitting ending for the expression of praise and joy to God on the holiday of Pesach as it too reminds us that though the embittered experience of the slave consumed our people for generations, the spark of redemption, the emergence from the fire, the worthiness of miracles, the journeying together towards a brighter future--they are what ultimately resonate in our hearts and minds (and taste-buds) this Pesach.

Chag (korech) Sameach!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hallel and the Miracle of Man's Worthiness

Many prayers are taken from Tehillim; Hallel is no exception. They are comprised from psalms 113-118, from 'Hallelu-ya, hallelu avdei Hashem' to 'hodu La'Hashem ki tov' in 118. The word 'hallel' appears in these six psalms seven times focusing our attention on the experience of Man praising God.

We recite these psalms on holidays as an expression of our gratitude to God for doing the supernatural, for changing the course of nature, for saving us from peril.

Truth is, though, miracles happen every day. There is no 'natural', all life is supernatural. So why do we get so excited about a few miracles thousands of years ago? Why recite Hallel for that?

My grandfather asked me this question and then gave me yet another profound nugget that has stayed with me for years. Hallel is not recited when God performs miracles in the world; Hallel is recited when mortal man shines for a moment making him worthy of God's divine intervention.

Pesach is not about God alone; it is about the relationship between a downtrodden nation, subjugated, removed from their homeland, distanced from their God; though not completely. Somehow they held on, calling out to God in pain, in suffering, in desperation.

"23 And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob."

Years later I found some Tehillim evidence for my grandfather's position. Psalm 113 is prefaced by two very similar psalm, 111, 112. Each one is an acrostic, each one offers praise. But there is one major difference--the subject. Psalm 111 is about God--a logical introduction to the notion of 'hallelu-ya'--praise God. Thus we read:

1 Hallelu-ya
I will extol God with all my heart
in the council of the upright and in the assembly.

2 Great are the works of God;
they are pondered by all who delight in them.
3 Glorious and majestic are His deeds,
and His righteousness endures forever.
4 He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
God is gracious and compassionate.
5 He provides food for those who fear Him;
He remembers His covenant forever.

6 He has shown his people the power of His works,
giving them the lands of other nations.
7 The works of His hands are faithful and just;
all His precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established for ever and ever,
enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He provided redemption for His people;
He ordained his covenant forever—
holy and awesome is His name.

10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow His precepts have good understanding.
To Him belongs eternal praise.

Psalm 112 is the exact same umber of verses and many of the same phrases appear. It too begins with Hallelu-ya and it too praises. But this time the subject is not God but MAN!

1 Hallelu-ya
Fortunate are those who fear God,
who find great delight in His commands.

2 Their children will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3 Wealth and riches are in their houses,
and their righteousness endures forever.
4 Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
who conduct their affairs with justice.

6 Surely the righteous will never be shaken;
they will be remembered forever.
7 They will have no fear of bad news;
their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the LORD.
8 Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear;
in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
9 They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor,
their righteousness endures forever;
their horn will be lifted high in honor.

10 The wicked will see and be vexed,
they will gnash their teeth and waste away;
the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.

In order to truly approach Hallel one must be cognizant of the reason why it is so fundamental during special Jewish holidays. We acknowledge a world centered on God, but Rabbi Sooloveitchik taught us that we must remember it is oriented on Man. We should meditate on two prefatory psalms focusing on the unique bond of God and man.

Can man rise to attain God's worthiness such that He shakes the heavens and moves the earth? The answer on Pesach is yes. We celebrate the miracle of man's capacity to, once in a while, find favor in the eyes of God and warrant the natural and the supernatural at once.

Chag Sameach.