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.
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.
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