Featured on: TIMES OF ISRAEL
MK Michael Oren Speaks at MJEWATCH: Michael Oren gives a fascinating and entertaining lecture about the history and current status of the U.S./ Israel relationship.
For more on the evening, check out this The Times of Israel blog post by Rabbi Mark Wildes on what we can learn from Michael Oren and the U.S./ Israel Relationship:
Posted by Manhattan Jewish Experience on Sunday, November 22, 2015
Part One: The Contemporary Craze & The Jewish Approach
Mindfulness and its positive impact on our lives is nothing new. Knowledge about meditation and its ability to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and reduce chronic pain, is centuries old. Becoming more aware and present as well as more appreciative of the simple blessings in our lives, can lead to a richer and more meaningful life. When we are mindful we don’t just gulp down our food, we savor the flavor. We don’t interrupt a friend while they’re speaking, we listen and internalize their underlying message. We don’t rush from place to place but attempt to appreciate our surroundings, aware of the sky above and the ground below. But again, none of this is new. Nevertheless the development of technology has made mindfulness not only attractive but an absolute necessity in our day to day lives.
While it has enabled us to accomplish much more in less time, technology has created new expectations and a pressured environment. This certainly applies to our lives at work, but even at play. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet one of my icons, Paul McCartney. While I should have simply enjoyed the few minutes I had with Sir Paul, I was consumed with how I would capture the moment for everyone else to see. Should it be a still picture or a video, Instagram or Facebook? As I was trying to enjoy my few moments with Paul, those distracting thoughts took away some of the genuine joy, in real time, of that special encounter (Paul, by the way, could not have been nicer). The internet and social media devices to which we are glued, often prevent us from being in the moment, robbing us of some of the simple pleasures of life.
What is the first thing you do in the morning? According to recent studies, 80% of people check their phones and the average person checks their phone 40-50 times a day, 2-3 times an hour (Study conducted by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania,). A Bank of America study found that many 18 to 34 year-olds admit to having a closer relationship with their smartphones than with the most important people in their life while another study discovered that teens average 1,000-1,500 texts a day. Timothy Wilson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, placed a group of people in a quiet room for 6-15 minutes without their smartphones, where they were asked to simply think and reflect. The only other distraction was an electronic button, which if pushed, would deliver a severe shock to the person pressing the button. They were all told that pushing the button would deliver a painful jolt. The study found that a majority of people, especially men, pushed the button. This means that some people would prefer to inflict pain upon themselves rather than “just be”. Our addiction to stimulation has made our generation exceptionally distracted, making it harder and harder for us to be in the moment.
To deal with all this, many have turned to the modern-day mindfulness movement with its Zen Buddhist roots. The modern term “mindfulness” was popularized by Jon Kabat – Zinn, a scientist from MIT, whose goal was to promote a “Buddhist meditation without Buddhism.” In 1979, Zinn created something called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR for short) which combined Buddhism with Western medicine and which ultimately developed into a movement across America. Classical Judaism can also be described as a path to mindfulness, albeit with a different goal and methodology. The Near Eastern approach to mindfulness, which conjures up the image of a monk meditating on a mountain far away from civilization, is ultimately aimed at removing oneself from the physical world. There is, of course, a certain attraction to that approach, but the goal in Jewish mindfulness is not to remove oneself from the world, but rather to engage the physical through the mitzvot (all of which are physical activities), in order to achieve Judaism’s ultimate goal, which is not transcendentalism, but rather – holiness. Holiness in Judaism is attained, not by breaking free of the physical world, but rather by elevating the physical aspects of our existence. The physical activities, in which we are engaged on a regular basis, are not simply meant to be used to survive or gain pleasure from – their ultimate purpose is to keep us connected to our Divine source, and to achieve what the Kabbalists call dveikut or attachment with our Creator. We accomplish this by applying the mitzvot to virtually every human activity. The mindfulness and awareness the mitzvot help produce are therefore a means to something even greater, namely, closeness with Hashem.
In this series I will outline the uniquely Jewish practices which promote mindfulness including:
Kavanah: Achieving a certain emotional awareness through the performance of specific religious activities.
Prayer and Blessings: Reciting certain words and phrases, on a regular basis, in order to become mindful of one’s life mission (necessary for living a purposeful life) and of basic gifts such as the ability to see or walk, necessary to becoming a grateful person.
The Shema: A mantra which if done properly enables one to become mindful of certain spiritual realities, the basis for a purposeful and spiritually driven life.
The Sabbath: Disconnecting from both technology and manipulating the physical world in order to connect with one’s spiritual source and with other people.
Jewish Dietary Laws and Sexual Intimacy: Allows for the infusion of holiness into the most physical areas of life, ie-food and sex.
I will elaborate on each area in subsequent entries but let us begin with the practice of Kavanah, commonly understood as awareness or intention: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, the great 20th century thinker, distinguished between two types of mitzvot or commandments found in the Torah: mitzvot whose performance and fulfillment are one in the same as opposed to mitzvot whose performance and fulfillment are different. The taking and shaking of the Lulav on the holiday of Sukkot for example, defines the way this mitzvah is both performed and fulfilled. Sefirat HaOmer, counting the days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, is another action which both performs and fulfill the mitzvah. This model characterizes most mitzvot. However, for some mitzvot, their performance is accomplished via certain actions or rituals, but their fulfillment is only achieved through attaining a certain spiritual awareness or mindfulness. For example, the mitzvah to be “happy on the holidays”, was performed in Temple times by bringing various sacrifices and today through drinking wine and eating meat, but unless one experiences a sense of joy, one may have performed the mitzvah, but one has not fulfilled it. To fulfill this commandment, some kind of joy or elation must be felt in the heart.
Another such example is the mitzvah to recite the Shema, performed by reciting certain words from the Torah. But the fulfillment of this mitzvah takes place through what is called: kabbalat ol malchut shamayim or accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven. This involves acknowledging the existence of God and committing oneself to living in accordance with His commandments and ethical teachings. Ultimately, it’s about achieving a state of mindfulness as to one’s very existence and purpose in this world.
The Jewish laws of Aveilut, of mourning the loss of a loved one, serves as another example. The mitzvah is performed by refraining from certain physical activities. A mourner, for example, does not wash, anoint with oils, wear leather shoes, and more. These actions help the mourner appreciate his or her loss, but as the Talmud says “there is only mourning in the heart” – some kind of feeling of loss must be experienced in the heart and so again, the activities are designed to bring about a mental state and emotional experience.
Finally, when it comes to prayer, we perform that mitzvah through the recitation of the Shmone Esrei, or the Eighteen Blessings written some 2,500 years ago by the Jewish sages. However, in order to fulfill this mitzvah, something must be experienced in the heart, since prayer is defined in Jewish tradition as a “service of the heart”. Thus ones focus or intention, ie- “kavanah”, is indispensable for the fulfillment of this mitzvah.
Rabbi Shnier Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote that performing the actions associated with mitzvot only elevates the body and the animal soul, the part of the soul most connected with the body. Since praying involves the body (one’s throat, lips, palate, tongue and teeth), reciting prayers has the spiritual power to elevate the body and the lowest part of the soul. However, in order for the uppermost part of the soul to be impacted, ie-the neshama, one needs kavanah – mindful focus. To impact the upper realms and the world around us, a certain mental awareness is required. Aruch, Orach Chaim, 98:10).
I will come back to prayer later in this series, but the basic idea in all these religious practices, whether it’s moving one’s lips to recite prayers (as in the case of the Shema or Shmone Esrei), eating meat and drinking wine to rejoice in the holidays, or refraining from anointing oneself or wearing leather shoes in the case of the mourner, these physical activities are designed to bring about a certain sense of awareness and mindfulness of the ultimate reality. My next entry will focus on specific prayers and blessings Jewish tradition mandates we say in order to become more mindful of our purpose in life and of the many blessings we take for granted. We will then discuss how the Sabbath protects us from some of the damaging effects of technology, and how its restrictions on work teach us how to be present and learn how to simply ‘be”. Finally, we will learn how the Jewish laws governing diet and sex infuse those important parts of our lives with spirituality and God consciousness.
Ultimately, the Jewish practices of mindfulness, if practiced regularly, enables us to channel every aspect of our physical lives towards achieving dveikut or closeness with our Creator. In doing so we can become holier people since having a greater God and soul awareness can, over time and with regular practice, change our nature. We are, after all, where our mind and are thoughts are. If most of the day our thoughts consist of food, sports and sex, then our nature will be more in the realm of the physical. If, however we engage in any of the above-mentioned activities designed to produce mindfulness, then, as our thoughts are directed upwards to the spiritual realms, our nature and disposition will follow suit. Over time, we will become more spiritually sensitive and ethically refined and ultimately holier people.
Part Two: The Power of Blessings
In my last blog on Judaism and Mindfulness we discussed how today’s fast paced world has created a greater need for mindfulness and how Jewish tradition, through a focused performance of mitzvot, enables us to achieve that much-needed awareness. We reviewed how the mitzvot are physical activities, either positive actions or activities from which we refrain, designed to bring about a certain sense of inner mindfulness of the ultimate reality. In this entry, I’d like to focus on how prayers and blessings can, in a simple but powerful way, make us cognizant and grateful of the most important gifts in our lives.
Contrary to popular perception, when we recite a blessing we are not blessing God. God, Jewish tradition teaches, is the very definition of perfection and, as such, does not need our blessing. We recite blessings to acknowledge God as the source of our bounty and good fortune. The Hebrew word for blessings, bracha is linguistically connected to the word breicha, or “spring”, the source of water. We recite blessings to acknowledge God as the ultimate source for whatever life gift we are about to enjoy so we can become more aware and ultimately appreciative of the gifts we often take for granted. This explains why, for example, when saying a blessing before eating some fruit, we say: “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree”. We do not say “bless you” God but rather, “blessed are you God” – for we are simply acknowledging God as the source of the fruit, which is critical to becoming a more grateful person. And as all the studies show, grateful people are happier people.
When we wake up each morning, Jewish tradition teaches us to recite the “Modeh Ani” prayer: “I thank you O everlasting King for returning my soul to me, great is your faith”. Again, we are not blessing God but acknowledging Him as the source of our blessing – in this case, for our very existence. The Sages, who composed this short prayer, purposely omitted God’s name so it could be recited immediately upon awakening, even before having to leave our beds to wash our hands. It was important to the Sages that our first words of the day should ones of gratitude and renewal, emphasizing that with each new day, God returns our souls to our bodies, allowing us to live another day. We become mindful that we are entering a new day, with new opportunities and not the same old drudge. We’re not the same as we were the day before, not spiritually and not even physically. Our cells keep changing. Scientists believe that 98% of all the cells and 1/7 of all the atoms in our bodies are replaced every year. Saying the Modeh Ani prayer helps us connect to this theme of newness and renewal.
Another layer of insight is expressed in the last words of the prayer: “great is your faith”. We do not say, great is “our faith”, referring to our faith in God but rather “your faith” referring to God’s faith in us. We begin our day by acknowledging God’s belief in us, a daily encouragement that our Creator thinks us worthy of life. God believes we have the potential to reach our goals – that’s why he gave us another day to live. In a generation which struggles with self-esteem, starting our day with mindfulness of our self-worth is critical.
Just as critical though is being aware of our basic biological functions. Therefore, Judaism prescribes the Asher Yatzar blessing for when one emerges from the bathroom. On the surface, saying a blessing after discharging bodily waste, seems like a strange practice. Every so often I’ll see someone mumbling something to themselves outside of a bathroom and I smile. Although it may look a bit strange, saying a blessing after going to the bathroom enables us to appreciate an important physiological function while we still have. Our general tendency is to appreciate our health only after a medical scare – when a part of our bodily functions has been threatened. After undergoing hernia surgery, I was told I would be allowed to leave the hospital only after moving my bowels. After being able to do so I remember feeling so happy and grateful, though it was something I had done countless times before. Jewish mindfulness means becoming aware and grateful for what we have right now. This is particularly critical in affluent countries where our basic needs are already met and we often wait for the next great thing to happen to make us happy. Judaism teaches that we already have what it takes to be happy – we just don’t realize it. Blessings help us feel this.
The after-bathroom blessing concludes with these words: “Hashem heals all flesh and performs a wonder.” What’s the wonder? Among the different answers offered, the “wonder” refers to the soul which is connected to the body, namely, that the physical can live alongside the spiritual. Every time we thank God that our body’s plumbing is working, we are reminded of the soul within us – that while we are grateful for our bodies, ultimately it is the soul or the spiritual part of us that defines us. We are soul’s with bodies and not the reverse.
The Jewish sages instituted a number of other daily blessings corresponding to different aspects of our physical existence, again enabling us to become mindful and grateful of life’s gifts. For instance, every morning we say: “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who gives sight to the blind”. In reciting this blessing, we become aware and hence more grateful for the important gift of sight. As the great religious Zionist thinker, Rabbi Shlomo Zevin comments, the blessing also generally ensure we do not become blind to the many blessings in our lives.
Another daily blessing, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who clothes the naked” helps us appreciate the clothing we have. Other than appreciating the actual clothing we are blessed to have, on a deeper level, the Hebrew word to for clothing, “levush”, contains the same letters as the word “busha” meaning “shame.” Clothing provides a sense of modesty and preserves a healthy sense of shame. Not the kind of shame that demeans, but one which ensures we don’t give away too much of ourselves to others.
Another daily blessing, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who releases the imprisoned” celebrates our ability to stretch and be mobile, to move from one place to the next. This can also refer to our ability to break free of any self-imposed negativity or restrictions with which we shackle ourselves. There are times when we imprison ourselves with limiting thoughts or negative self-image. This blessing reminds us that we can control the way we think of ourselves and adopt a positive attitude in any situation. The great 20th century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Soloveitchik, taught that although we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can control howwedeal with the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The prayer, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who spreads the earth upon the waters” reminds us of the deliberate and precise creation of everything in the physical universe. We know from science that if the earth were any closer to the sun, our world would incinerate and if it was too far, the earth would freeze. Everything is so precise, bespeaking a Creator that has thought out everything and left very little to chance. This blessing causes us to reflect upon the fundamental Jewish teaching that life is purposeful and worthy of taking seriously since nothing, including the world itself, is random.
Prayers and blessings are not only important for appreciating what we have, be it sight, clothing or good health. On a deeper spiritual level, prayer is also necessary to realize
what we don’t have – what we are lacking spiritually. The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of the Lubavitcher movement likens our spiritual existence after the Temple’s destruction, what we call galut (exile), to a person wandering in the dessert thirsty for water. The dessert is a place which forces one to feel a certain lacking. The very reason we were sent into this dessert, the Tzemach Tzedek teaches, is to feel a sense of what is missing in our lives, so we can long for something greater. Praying allows us to feel that lacking because when we pray, it helps us tune in to our souls – the more spiritual part of who we are – and we start to hear the deeper things we long for in life. The prayers refer us to the pain and suffering that exist in our world and to all the people who are in need of healing. When we recognize what’s deeper and we feel that sense of lack, we are drawn closer to Hashem for what we don’t have and for more depth in our often, superficial lives.
Thus, on one hand, prayer helps us realize our blessings but it also makes us aware of where we’re missing, in our closeness to our very source, our Creator. This is why sometimes when a person meets a tzadik – a truly righteous person, they start to cry. When we experience real holiness manifested in another person, it causes us to reflect on our own lives. We often become so focused on success in this world that we forget our ultimate purpose that we were journeying for in the first place. There is a story told of a man traveling to India who learned that his flight had to stopover in France for a few hours. As a result he spent the entire flight learning how to speak French. When the man landed in France he was able to speak, go shopping and have a wonderful experience during the few hour stopover. However, when he arrives in India, the original purpose of his trip, he is completely lost. Prayer help us keep our final destination in mind, so we don’t get too caught up building stopover skills and forget our ultimate purpose.
Thus, prayer and blessings are vital, not only in appreciating what we have today but in remembering why we’ve taken this journey in the first place.
In the 1960’s, Reb Shlomo Carlebach would travel to the former Soviet Union to distribute Tefilin, Mezuzot, Yarmulkes and other religious items forbidden in Russia at the time. At the end of one of his trips, as Reb Shlomo was packing his bags in his Moscow hotel room, he heard a knock at the door.
Reb Shlomo saw it was a little boy knocking and so he let him in. The boy looks up at Reb Shlomo and asks: “Do you know where I can find Rabbi Carlebach?” “That’s me, I’m Rabbi Carlebach but please call me Shlomo – what can I do for you?” he asked. “I was told you have Tefilin,” the boy answers. Reb Shlomo sadly responds: “I’m so sorry, but I’m at the end of my trip and I gave away my last pair of Tefilin.”
The boy became very sad. He looked down at the ground and then looked back up to Reb Shlomo and with a tear in his eye asked: “In a few weeks I’m going to be a Bar-Mitzvah. How can I have a Bar-Mitzvah without Tefilin?” Reb Shlomo went into his suitcase and pulled out a pair of Tefilin which looked old and worn. He knelt down beside the boy and with the Tefilin in his hand told the boy: “These Tefilin belonged to my grandfather, a great Rabbi in Germany. They were also worn by my father in the concentration camps and I have worn them every day since I was a Bar Mitzvah. Promise me you’ll use them and they’re yours.” The boy smiled and promised he would wear them every day.
As the boy proceeded to leave, he turned around and asked: “Wait, Shlomo, do you have an extra Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo answered: “I must have given away hundreds of Yarmulkes, but I have none left.” The boy looked up and asked: “How can I wear my Tefilin without a Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo took off his own Yarmulke and handed it to the child and the boy left.
What compels someone to part with something so important, so sentimental and valuable for a complete stranger?
In this week’s parsha, Parshat Ki Tissa we read about the very dramatic incident of Chayt Ha’aygel, the sin of the Golden Calf. After the sin takes place and all those involved are punished, Moshe turns to the rest of the Jewish community, to the majority of the community who did not participate in the sin and says something strange: Atem chatasem chateah gedolah -“you have committed a great transgression,” v’atah e’eleh el Hashem – “and now I’ll go up to God,” ulai achpera b’ad chatatchem- “maybe He (Hashem) will forgive you for your sin.”
To what sin is Moshe referring? The Jews who committed the serious sin of worshipping the Golden Calf had already been punished! Moshe was addressing the rest of the community that had not sinned, so to what sin was Moshe referring?
My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter suggested it was for the sin of not doing anything. For the sin of remaining indifferent, of being idle. Sure, the majority of the Jews did not engage in the sin of the Golden Calf, but they also failed to prevent their fellow brothers from doing so. The Torah challenges us: Lo Ta’amud Al Dam Re’echa – “don’t stand by idly by thy brother’s blood.” Our Sages teach: Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Laze– “all Jews are responsible one for the next” and so even though only a small percentage of the people actually engaged in the sin, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, because we are all connected.
Whether it’s for the good or for the bad, we’re seen as one and we even feel as one. I remember years ago, before the terrible crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle, the Jewish community felt so proud that one of the astronauts aboard was a Jew. The Jewish community was even prouder when this Jewish astronaut, Colonel Ramon, decided to eat kosher food in space and bring up a Torah Scroll with him from a concentration camp. It made us all feel proud, not only because it reflected well on us as a people, but also because we are all interconnected. Similarly, how embarrassed did we feel, also years ago, when Bernie Madoff, another fellow Jew was taken off to prison for cheating so many people out of so much money? We felt that too because we have this connection.
The great Radvaz compared the entire Jewish people to the body of a single individual. He said that just like when one part of the body is in pain, the entire body is affected, so too each Jew feels the pain or the joy of another Jew, because we are all but different parts of the same organism. In the Midrash, the great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, compared the Jewish people to the passengers of a huge ship that is beginning to sink. The passengers and crewman are scurrying about, desperately trying to find the cause of the sinking ship. They look everywhere until they come across one locked cabin with water gushing out from underneath the door. The crewman kicked open the door and lo and behold there’s this one guy digging away, drilling a huge hole in the floor of his cabin and the water is gushing through. The passengers shout at the man: “What are you doing?” The man responds: “What’s the problem? I’m just drilling a hole in my cabin! It’s my cabin after all, I paid for it!”
We are all in the same boat. What affects one person affects us all. The coronavirus operates in the very same way. Acting responsibly, following the Health Department’s rules against congregating publicly (which is why we are not holding services this Shabbat), is not only necessary to keeping ourselves safe. It is imperative to help contain the virus for everyone. The Jewish teaching of areivus, the responsibility of one person to the next, demands such a response. Human life is paramount and it is only for this reason that MJE, for the first time in 21 years, would not host Shabbat services.
Areivus is fundamental to being Jewish and is expressed very powerfully through the following halacha in regard to reciting brachot (blessings). If one is eating with a fellow Jew not familiar with brachot, provided you are also eating, you can say the blessing for that other person and all your friend needs to do is have in mind to be yotze (satisfied) with your bracha, and if possible say Amen. However, you, the one saying the bracha, must be eating yourself. However, this only applies to blessings recited over food. When it comes to blessings said before performing a mitzvah, the halacha is that even if you have already fulfilled your own obligation (for example, you’ve already donned your Tefilin or you have already recited the blessing over the Shabbat candles), you can recite the bracha again for a fellow Jew who may not know.
How is that allowed? You’ve already made your own blessing using Hashem’s name? How can you do it again? The Rabbeinu Nissim explains that when it comes to a birchot hamitzvah, a blessing recited before the performance of a mitzvah, because it is something in which we are all commanded and because all Jews are responsible for each other, you can say the blessing again – for as long as your fellow Jew has not fulfilled their mitzvah, your mitzvah is incomplete. What happens to someone else affects us. We cannot proceed with business as usual if someone else is lacking or is in trouble or in danger, be it after an attack in Israel or the Corona striking our next-door neighbor. Their concern is our concern.
Being a Jew means caring and feeling the pain of others. It means helping a friend who has lost their job, making some calls, helping them network to secure another position or just being there for them emotionally. I remember back in 2008 when the economy tanked and someone said to me: “Rabbi, don’t expect as many MJE participants to come to the Annual Dinner this year (we just postponed this year’s Dinner to June 9th) or to contribute, with the economy being as it is.” And I remember responding to this person, that the day our participants stop giving back is the day this place shuts down. Not just because we need everyone’s support to continue our vital programming, but because when we stop being there for each other, ultimately, we stop being a community. A real community is comprised of members who care and who sacrifice for each other, who, in times of crisis, do not turn inward, but despite the challenge, rise to the occasion.
My friends, this is such a time. People are scared and uptight about the situation. Older people and those with preexisting conditions feel particularly vulnerable. We need to be there for them. If you have such a friend or family member or anyone else who is feeling isolated or fearful of the situation, call them. Reach out to them and call them often. If you cannot see them in person, use your iPhone so they can see you and feel the concern you have for them. Take advantage of the extra time you may have off from work to do some extra Torah studying. MJE is adding an on-line Zoom class every day from 12:30-1:00pm. And take some extra time to pray. Pray for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus (see list of names below) and pray that Hashem bless our efforts to contain the virus so we can see this ailment pass as soon as possible.
Our fate and destiny are bound with each other and so to beat the coronavirus we must look out for each other, like a family. The truth is, for a brother or a sister, we would do just about anything. We would give them whatever they needed, be it our grandfather’s pair of Tefilin or the shirt off our back. Stay connected, stay safe and keep looking out for each other. May the love and unity with which we approach this moment serve as zechut, as a spiritual merit for Hashem’s blessing of healing and peace.
People I’ve been asked to pray for:
Avraham Shmuel Ben Rachel
Zev Melech Ben Bedina
(Rav) Zalman Dov ben Esther
Yosef ben Ester
Eliezer Yitzchak ben Shifra
Harav Reuven ben Fruma
Ivriyah Miriam bat Malkah Reizel
Daniel Shmuel ben Miriam
Tziporah Hadarah bat Rachel
Elana Devorah bat Freidel Nechama
Shami Aryeh ben Menucha Sarah
Yaakov ben Rochel Miriam
Shmuel Tzvi ben Roiza Frimet
Shoshana bat Sarah
Yonina Sarah bat Chana
Elchanan Yehonatan ben Chaya
Andre Abraham ben Berthe
Aviva Rachel bat Rivka
Ariella Malka bat Aviva
Yael Michal bat Ruth
Uri ben Priva Chaya
Aharon Shaul ben Rachel
Yosef Dov ben Rivkah Chaya
Leah bas Devorah Basha
Yosef Batsalel ben Ruth
Yaakov Eliezer ben Miriam Masha
Yaakov Yitzchok Moshe ben Devorah
Eta Leah bat Perel
Shaul Michael ben Eta Leah
Eliyahu ben Ahuva
Yisroel Zev ben Atara Karni Dal Beilah
The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.
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The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.
This past Shabbat there was knock at my door. It was one of my students, a 27-year old attorney who frequents Manhattan Jewish Experience and is an important part of our community of young professionals. He came over to share the news that he decided to quit vaping. He had this look of total pride and accomplishment on his face, having broken a habit with which he had been struggling for years.
What gave him the strength? How did he do it?
Although I couldn’t invite my student (he prefers to remain anonymous) into my home – social distancing and all – I gave him a chair in the hallway so we could speak. He told me he had just been for a walk in Central Park where he saw numerous other young people, smoking and vaping. New data released by the CDC warned that young people may be more impacted by COVID-19 than was initially thought. Up to 20% of people hospitalized with the virus have been between the ages of 20 and 44. In China, smokers were 14 times more likely to develop severe cases of the virus than those who do not smoke. When my student saw those stats, he went into his bedroom and did something he said he hasn’t been able to do for years: he threw out all his vaping materials. “Rabbi, I feel so free and if I get Corona, now I can fight it.”
I told my student that his decision to quit vaping, especially now, was in keeping with the highest of Jewish values and principles. As the Torah explicitly tells us: “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deuteronomy 4:9). The classic commentator Kli Yakar explains: “Guard yourself’ means taking care of the body.” Bodily health is necessary for observing the Torah’s mitzvot (commandments) since in most cases they require physical action of some kind. When the body is unfit or unhealthy, it detracts from our ability to the properly fulfill the mitzvot. In the words of the great Maimonides: “Bodily health and well-being are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore, one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits” (Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 4:1).
Even more fundamentally, Judaism is a religion of life, a spiritual path that celebrates human life, virtually above everything else. Life trumps keeping kosher. Life trumps Shabbat and – as my student shared – it should also trump the mental discomfort that comes from quitting nicotine. I do not want to oversimplify the addictive nature of vaping and smoking. I know from friends and others it is not easy to stop. But maybe now, knowing the increased dangers these bad habits now pose to young people in defeating this deadly virus, we will have the fortitude to make some real and lasting changes.
In light of the above sentiment expressed by Maimonides, that good health is a means for greater spiritual perfection, we should endeavor to use this time to break other bad habits as well. Texting while driving, eating unhealthily and other substance abuses are the cause of much illness and death. Or what seems as a less harmful, but just as dangerous of a bad habit as speaking ill of our neighbors and colleagues. If our social distancing inspires us to now better appreciate our family and friends, we can express that newfound appreciation by trying to refrain from saying anything negative about them.
If the data shared above can freak out enough people to stop smoking or vaping, then at least COVID-19 will have served some positive function. Let us use our new awareness regarding the fragility and preciousness of human life to become stronger, wiser, and more prudent. Pressure can break a person, but it can also make diamonds. Maybe, just maybe, this terrible virus can help us end some bad habits once and for all.
Riding off the inspiration from his personal triumph, my student decided to create a page to inspire others to do the same. You can follow him on social media at daily_inspirational_wisdom.
The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.
After recently helping dozens of members of the Manhattan Jewish Experience community prepare for their Seders alone, and a month into a new world of isolation and social distancing, we received an email with the subject line: “The Mayor Cancels Israel Day Parade.” I felt a pit in my stomach, as the reality of not joining together to celebrate Israel began to sink in. For decades, amidst all the divide and controversy surrounding the Jewish State, the parade has been one of the most positive expressions of Jewish solidarity for Israel in the United States. Since our inception in 1998, MJE has proudly marched every year with hundreds of young Jewish professionals dancing down 5th Avenue signing Am Yisrael Chai. This event has served as a rallying cry for MJE’s unwavering love and support for Israel and an expression of our religious Zionistic orientation.
We are told there will be a “virtual” parade, but assuredly it will lack the energy and inspired emotion of being face-to-face and hand-in-hand with our Jewish brothers and sisters on the streets of Manhattan. So what can we do? How can we recapture that special love for Israel in a socially distanced diaspora?
Israel has already given us the answer. In the last two months, while the world has been on a standstill, something mundane but quite extraordinary has been happening in Israel: roadwork is booming as construction crews take advantage of empty roads and railways during the coronavirus to upgrade Israel’s most congested highways. The Israeli government has injected over one billion shekels into the impromptu campaign and for nearly two months companies have been cramming in the work while the rest of the country is stuck at home. One recruitment campaign is referred to as “Opportunity in the Crisis.” The push to finish projects quickly is hoped to have an immense, long-term positive impact on the economy. In addition, some of the biggest and most crucial projects, like the final stretch of a new fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem or the expansion of a highway in central Israel, will be finished six months to a year ahead of schedule because building has been accelerated during this time of crisis.
Israel’s accelerated road work at this time demonstrates a fundamental Jewish teaching: to find opportunity in life’s challenges and to transform oneself from an object into a subject where one can assert some level of control, particularly in challenging times. For the late and great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, this was the impetus behind the modern-day Zionist movement.
On Yom Ha-atzma’ut 1956, Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered his famous treatise on religious Zionism, Kol Dodi Dofek, in which he spoke of God’s tangible presence in modern history, specifically the creation of the State of Israel. In the essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik outlined two experiences of the Jewish people: a national covenant of FATE and a religious covenant of DESTINY. What is the difference between a life of fate versus one of destiny? Fate is uncontrollable, destiny can be directed.
To paraphrase Rabbi Soloveitchik: Destiny in the life of a people, as in the life of an individual, signifies a deliberate and conscious existence that the people has chosen out of its own free will. Slaves merely exist; they anticipate no change in their reality. Free men, on the other hand, expect movement and change in their lives; they aspire to forward and upward movement. The Torah calls upon each Jew to make a choice: To sanctify the Sabbath or desecrate it; to honor one’s parents or disregard them. When the slaves stood at Mount Sinai and said “We shall do and we shall understand” they were making the Jewish vision their national mission, defining themselves as a “kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation,” and turning their fate into destiny. More succinctly put, the covenant of fate is imposed; the covenant of faith is chosen. To be born into a particular nation is our fate; to choose an ideal and ideology as our life’s mission is our destiny. The Rav continues and says, The infant about to be circumcised is an object upon whom a ritual is to be imposed (fate); the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and bride/groom and the hundreds and thousands of ba’alei teshuvah in our community who have chosen a life dedicated to the ideals of Torah are transforming from object to subject and actualizing their deepest aspirations (destiny).
So, while it is our FATE that we cannot march in honor of Israel, and we are prevented from traveling to Israel at this time, we can be a people of DESTINY by choosing to connect and contribute to Israel in other ways. Consider spending some time this week learning more about Israel and the founding of the Jewish State. In doing so, we can better appreciate Israel and understand its complexities. To this end, MJE has launched a series of classes and seminars on Israel – including an interview with Israel journalist and New York Times best-selling author Yossi Klein Halevi. Like other organizations, MJE’s Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration on Tuesday night will be online, as will be a special Yom Ha’atzmaut prayer service on Wednesday morning (see www.jewishexperience.org) so we can become more soulfully connected to our precious homeland. Being stuck at home affords us the extra time to deepen our understanding and appreciation for what Israel means to us. Take advantage of that extra time this week to get more connected to Israel.
Transforming a life of fate into one of destiny is fundamental to being Jewish. This week the world celebrates Zionism’s transformation of Jewish life after the Holocaust from one of object to subject, from a life of fate to a life of destiny. Let’s follow Israel’s example of building roads by not allowing the coronavirus dampen our celebration of Israel’s birthday. In doing so, we will change our own life of fate into one of destiny.
Special thanks to Rabbi Ezra Cohen of the Manhattan Jewish Experience for his help with this article.
Corona has challenged many critical parts of our lives but for the large singles population of NYC, the pandemic has put a hold on dating and courtship. For an organization and community (which I am privileged to direct) dedicated to bringing young people together – one which boasts 364 marriages in the last 20 years- this is quite distressing. In the last two months I’ve had conversations with dozens of my students who have basically given up on dating – for now. While I certainly understand why some have chosen to push off dating until they can date in person, I am disappointed so many people’s marriage prospects are now on hold for so long.
But must it be that way? Dating app usage has actually increased since the pandemic began and dating sites are reporting longer conversations on the sites than ever before. So why can’t we figure out a way to convert more of those dating app meet ups into actual on-line “dates”? The Bible’s famous comment on Adam’s life before Eve’s creation, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) applies more now than ever before. It’s just unhealthy to be alone for this long and so why put off meeting that special person?
Whether two people can actually fall in love on-line remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: zoom and other such platforms enable two people to get to know each other and even develop a relationship. One of my students said to me that his zoom dates have helped create what he feels is a deep connection with someone he now calls his girlfriend.
Consider some of the advantages of a zoom date: First, it is free! Compare that to how expensive dinner or even drinks used to be, an important factor for young people who may now be unemployed.
Second, zoom dating, while allowing the couple to determine whether they are physically attracted to one another, removes the pressure and distraction that comes with physical or sexual intimacy. The fact that physical contact is not an option can actually help the couple focus on the deeper aspects of their personalities and assist in maintaining clarity on their true feelings for one another. In Jewish tradition, physical attraction is an important ingredient for marriage, but physical intimacy is reserved for after the marriage as a way of deepening the bond after a commitment has been made. Corona and Zoom are just putting into action what Jewish tradition has been teaching for years.
Finally, even if the zoom date does not materialize, spending that hour or so getting to know another person is definitely a productive and healthy way of spending time. It takes us out of ourselves for a brief moment to open our hearts and become more sensitive empathic beings.
One important suggestion for your next zoom date: Take the date seriously by preparing for the encounter: set a time, shower, comb your hair and put on something nice. As Jewish tradition teaches, the more one prepares and invests for something in advance, the more the experience will mean to us. Another one of my students, a young woman was sent take out dinner in advance of their zoom date so the couple could enjoy dinner as they met on zoom (there goes advantage #1). Another planned a Netflix film and yet another sent an interesting article to discuss. Both took the time to arrange it in advance – that’s the key.
After 9-11, there was record number of engagements in New York City. Crisis have a way of reminding us of what is truly important in life – giving to another to create something beyond ourselves which in turn leads to personal happiness and making the world a better place. I pray that the silver lining of these months of quarantine and isolation will bring us the same realization.
Part Three: The Shema
In my last entry, we discussed the critical role prayer and blessings play in achieving mindfulness. Whether it’s simply thanking God for being alive (by reciting the Modeh Ani prayer upon arising) or that our bodies are functioning properly (ie-the After-Bathroom blessing), Jewish prayer reminds us of our blessings while we have them. This enables us to become more grateful and take joy in what we have, instead of making our happiness depend on what we don’t have.
Another fundamental Jewish practice which can bring about a deep sense of mindfulness, is the Shema. The Shema prayer enables one to contemplate and reflect upon the ultimate reality, God and His oneness. There is an interesting Jewish tradition for a Sofer, a Jewish scribe, when writing the words of the Shema in a Torah scroll, to enlarge two of the letters in the prayer: the Ayin, the last letter in the first word “Shema” (which means “hear”), and the Dalet, the last letter of the last word “Echad” (which means “One”).
The Jewish Sages offer a few explanations for the tradition to enlarge these two letters in the Shema. One explanation is that the letters ayin and dalet spell the Hebrew word ed or witness for by reciting the Shema we are testifying to the rest of humanity as to our faith in a one God. Another explanation is that the letter ayin is enlarged so it does not resemble or sound like Hebrew letter aleph which would spell shema meaning maybe or perhaps. That would make the Shema declaration sound something like: Perhaps God is one. The Hebrew letter dalit is enlarged so it does not look like its cousin letter, the reish which would spell the Hebrew word acher or “another” (instead of echad, ie-one) implying another God. Ultimately, the ayin and dalet caution us to leave our doubts and hesitations for another time and place.
The Shema is our moment each day to totally envelope ourselves in a belief in something beyond the physical world, in God Himself. As my teacher, the great contemporary scholar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote in his book on the Shema: “Our tradition makes room for the honest doubter, for without such doubt questions would never be asked, prejudices never challenged, and science would come to a halt. But when are we seriously engaged in prayer, endeavoring to experience the presence of God, it is not the time to entertain intellectual doubts. In prayer, taught R. Nahman of Bratzlav, we must cast aside all our “wisdom” and stand before our Maker as children; to be child-like in prayer is as appropriate as to be skeptical in thought. When seeking to wrest transcendent meaning out of existence and to pull ourselves out of the void, we should not cast ourselves into that very void. Rather, at that sacred moment, we can put our doubts aside and, in all integrity, proclaim the unity of God whole-heartedly.” (The Shema, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, page 17)
The Shema is that moment in our day when we fully commit ourselves to something greater than us; when we accept Hashem into our lives and the privilege of observing His commandments. That is what the Sages refer to as kabablat ol malchut shamayim or receiving the yoke of God’s sovereignty. By saying the Shema we become mindful of God’s mastery over the world and of our responsibility to carry out the mitzvoth of the Torah.
The Shema, however, is also intended to reflect upon God’s oneness. What does that mean exactly and why is it so important to be mindful of God’s Oneness?
Life often seems random. One day we wake up and everything is going well – work is good, your social life is progressing and the next day something changes. You get fired from your job or your girlfriend dumps you. Is it possible the same God, who allows for such goodness one day, can allows for so much to go wrong the next? And that’s just in my life. Multiply that sense of randomness throughout the world, millions of events which take place, both good and bad, that seem to have no rhyme or reason.
Of course, this is how things look from our own limited human perspective. Judaism teaches that in reality, every event which takes place, happens for a reason and is part of greater plan. Things may look random but in reality, everything is coming from one place and is happening for some greater good. That is what we mean when we say God is one. We are not simply expressing our belief in a one God as opposed to multiple Gods, but that there is one source for all of reality and for everything we see in the world.
One way of understanding God’s oneness is to imagine a light shining through a prism. Even though we see many colors of the spectrum, they all emanate from one light. This is why some suggest we cover our eyes when saying the Shema. For when we look out at the world, things appear fragmented and disconnected and so we cover our eyes to block out what appears as random, so we can remember and become mindful there is one source for all reality, one God behind everything which happens in our world and in our lives.
It was the Jewish people who brought the concept of monotheism, the belief in a one God to the rest of the world. It remains our mission to demonstrate that everything we experience, in our world and in our lives, is not accidental or random but an expression of well thought out plan by the one true reality. God willed us into existence for a reason and as such, the events which take place in this world are necessary parts of a greater plan. Saying the Shema everyday keep us mindful of this and allows us to bear testimony to Judaism’s core belief: life has purpose and meaning.