A Prayer.

Baruch Hashem for reminding me that, even in the dark hours of the night, everything is going to be alright.

Praise the Lord, He is my Rock and my Staff.

He is the Star by which I guide my life’s voyage,

and through His Torah, the other hand upon the wheel of my ship.

Touching Reality

The great virtue for me of daily tefilah is that it serves to remind me that the so-called “real world” is a consensual creation of mankind, existing in a bubble encompassed by the fullness of Hashem’s creation. We can choose to immerse ourselves in that bubble, or we can choose to be of it but not be confined by it.

Selichos

For the first time this year, I am starting my Selichos before Rosh Hashanah. I started last night after sundown, calculating that this would give me 7 full days of prayer before the start of the New Year.

What a powerful experience. Without making a pledge or vow, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to make this a tradition for Elul going forward.

A Parent’s Prayer

As graduation nears and so many of us will be witnessing our children undergo a rite of academic passage, and as Shavuot nears, it is a great time to say the Parent’s Prayer, Tefillas HaShelah.

The wonderful people at ArtScroll offer a downloadable, printable version here for your reference.

Free Download: A Parent’s Prayer {Tefillas HaShelah)

Enjoy, and may your children ever be a source of joy and nachas!

Facing the Crisis

Last week, on my way to pick up my son at the school bus stop, and just as we were approaching sundown on Friday night, I was again reproaching myself for not being shomer Shabbos. As I mulled that – or even began to – I heard a voice: “what if all of this is a lie?

“What if we, for whatever reasons, have simply been brainwashed,” it continued. “What if this – all religion – is just a big illusion that we have created for ourselves, a super-Disneyesque consensual fantasy that we have just willed into being?”

How seductive, nay, beguiling, a thought it was. I was washed over with the sense that a great burden of guilt, reproach, and angst was being lifted from me.

Then I heard another voice inside as I passed the little school on Pierpoint. “That, surely, is the Yetzer Hara whispering lies again. A crafty one he is.”

Then the first voice spoke again. “What a clever ploy, this while the idea of a ‘yetzer hara.’ With a single idea, we have automatically disqualified any rational challenge to G-d’s existence.

I quieted then. And came the second voice. “But if rationality is a human construct, is it the only framework with which to apprehend the world? Is it even the best? And have there not been a long line of thinkers reaching into antiquity who have addressed that question?”

It was but one brick yanked out of a large wall of doubt, but it was enough to deconstruct – or begin the slow collapse – of the wall. At that moment, my crisis of faith began to pass, just in time for my son to climb into the car, and for us to head home for salmon and Shabbos.

Facing Anger

On the eve of Yom Kippur, as I walked from my hotel to Beis Chabad, I felt the presence of Hashem in a remarkable way. I was filled with joy but not terribly surprised. It was, after all, Yom Kippur, the email flow had moderated to a tiny trickle, and it was a comfortable – if not glorious – Fall afternoon. I felt peace with Hashem and the universe, and nothing interfered with what felt like a direct signal to Him, though I could still feel a distance.

The feeling stayed with me until I was suddenly distracted by the driver of a large, luxurious BMW who had parked athwart the walkway in such a manner as to force me into dangerous traffic on my walk. I felt a shot of fury.

I quickly shook the fury off, but the connection with Hashem was no longer as clear.

It hurt. Almost physically.

The lesson could not have been more plain to me at that moment. We are instructed by Torah, the Sages, and the Chofetz Chayyim to refrain from speaking words of baseless hatred. But if we truly desire a connection with the Divine, we must recognize that angry thoughts, the very emotion of hatred, invites the yetzer hara and displaces the Holy Spirit.

Lesson learned. But it gets better.

Sitting in the Sukkah on the first night of Sukkoth, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich stood and gave a talk about anger. He said to us almost exactly what I felt on Erev Yom Kippur, but he went even further: when we get angry at our situation, we are fundamentally questioning the way G-d has made things to be. Anger is, therefore, is Chillul Hashem, a desecration of the name of Hashem.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. There are, after all, no coincidences.

I felt the connection anew. And I heard the Admonishment of Heaven.

I’m heading back to my hotel now, and I’m going to spend some time this evening studying the story of Moshe Rabbeinu striking a rock. Perhaps this is the lesson Hashem wishes me to learn this year.

America’s Choice

My wife and my 14 year-old son were discussing the election yesterday. And my wife said that this proves that we cannot put our faith in man or in Earthly institutions. We must put our faith in Hashem. 

She’s right. And it reminded me of a passage from the Tachanun:

And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”

We can trust people to represent us, but we cannot trust them to always have our best interests at heart, and, indeed, about all we can expect is for them to operate in the self-centered manner that economists call “rational.”

Do not put your faith in your leaders, elected or otherwise. Grant them a highly conditional trust at the very most.

Prayer Our Way

Here is what the Christian Gospels have to say about prayer:

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” [Matthew 6:5-6]

Jewish law and tradition holds that while all prayer is good, praying as a part of a minyan, a group of 10 or more, is an act of special holiness. Not everyone who prays in the presence of others is a hypocrite, and not everyone who prays alone is holy.

The ACLU Does Defend Freedom of Religion

Apparently few of my friends, liberal or conservative, realize that the American Civil Liberties Union is not a political force bent on the secularization of society. In fact, while the ACLU has taken on a number of cases to ensure that religion is not forced on anyone who does not want it so, they have been staunch defenders of the individual’s right to religious expression, especially in public schools.

Proof positive is here.

It is heartening to note that the nation’s most famous Constitutional Law crusaders stand in defense of the Free Exercise Clause, whether they personally believe in it or not.

Day by Day

For me, the hardest part of loving Hashem is the challenge I face every day in overcoming my baseless insecurity and learning to love my fellow man – even when my fellow man is at his worst. Maybe it is coffee. Maybe it is age. Either way, I have shown a disappointing lack of love and understanding of late, and I will put up with it from myself no longer.

When I went to Jewish summer camp in the 1970s, we sang the the song “Day by Day” from the musical Godspell. I never realized as a kid that song was from a play based on the Gospel of Matthew. All I knew was that camp more than anything else cemented by Judaism, and that song was an inexorable part of it. So to me, it is a Jewish son.

So I think of that song today, as I make my pledge to myself and Hashem to be better.

To see you more clearly: I will look into the eyes of my neighbor, and try to see more deeply into his or her heart;

To love you more dearly: I will treasure even the worst foibles of each person as an unconscious tribute to the mothers and fathers who brought them into this world;

To follow you more nearly: I will turn to Torah when I am vexed, and not lash out at those around me or allow my frustrations to fester.

 

Praying Alone

For a long time I have worried that I do most of my prayer alone, rather than as a part of a minyan. There are many reasons for that, none of which I will bother to discuss here for fear that they will be interpreted as excuses, and that they will detract from my main point.

I have always thought that prayer was required to be done in a minyan, and that Jews were only allowed to conduct their daily prayers alone only when there was no physical way of finding a group with which to daven.

So it was a physical relief to me to read differently in Rabbi Norman Solomon’s superb and highly-accessible Penguin volume, The Talmud: A Selection that the Sages felt otherwise.

However, Mishna regards the three daily services as individual rather than communal obligations; though it is virtuous to join others for communal prayer, individuals recite the daily prayers irrespective of whether they are in the synagogue or together with others.

So that is the distinction. While there is virtue in joining a minyan, the key is to pray. Needless to say, I feel a lot better now.

Hotel Teshuvah, Beijing

Staying in a hotel room in Beijing on Yom Kippur was a totally new experience. Leave out the fact that I have lived here for 18 years: for the first time, I was here alone, without my wife and son, and with no home to go to.

No TV. No computer. No Kindle. No books. No room service. No mini-bar. No iPad. No smartphone. And not much of a view – you don’t stay on the 39th floor on Yom Kippur (or Shabbos, for that matter.)

Just a thunderstorm outside my window and a soft bed beneath my back. Did I sleep? It was probably the best night’s sleep I have had in months, maybe longer.

There is a lesson in that, I think.

Yom Kippur Schmatta of a Bar Noach

Under my Kittel during Yom Kippur I wore comfortable clothes: blue jeans, non-leather tennis shoes, thick socks, and an oversized polo shirt.

I learned my lesson the hard way: teshuvah, Chabad-style, is work. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, it is a process for which a coat, tie, and slacks are unsuited (no pun intended.) A nice suit may show respect for the holiday, but more functional attire, IMHO, shows determination, focus, and commitment.

Or so I told myself.

A Wet Walk

As I was walking back to my hotel after Kol Nidre after the Yom Kippur evening service and a post-service discussion, a light drizzle turned into a downpour. Lightning flashed, thunder bellowed, and the late-summer cloudburst drenched to the skin.

I could be trite and say that I felt cleansed. Outside, I did. Inside, though, I felt even more the weight of how far I have strayed. I have never in my life felt more strongly the need for Teshuvah.

Thank You, Chabad Beijing!

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (...

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m incredibly grateful for the remarkable warmth, and love with which I was welcomed (back) into the Chabad Beijing community. Yom Kippur away from these wonderful people is, after over a decade in their fold, unimaginable. I will definitely have to arrange to come back every year — and, of course, many times in between.

Thank you to Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, Rebbetzin Dini Freundlich, Rabbi Nosson Rodin, the wise and learned Zalman Lipskar, and the entire Rawack family. Teshuvah never felt so comforting!

My Yom Kippur Lessons

A few lessons I took from Yom Kippur this year.

  • Teshuvah begins with forgiving everyone else for being imperfect.
  • You can’t have true teshuvah without approaching life with a feeling of gratitude. That’s actually a core tenet of success, and opens the road to humility.
  • My problem is pride. The antidote is reflection, gratitude, humility, and study.
  • I have allowed my relationship with Hashem to whither a bit. That is the true source of my discontent.

Now if only I can keep those in mind over the next year.

The call of the shofar

The call of the shofar
HBH”C Ploni ben Nistar

A beautiful post that captures the essence of why we blow the Shofar at this season.

I have heard a number of shiurim and D’varim about this topic, but this one stands near the top.

Happy Elul. May your days be filled with contemplation, wonder, and a love of Hashem.

A Blogger’s Prayer

Drawn from a much lengthier prayer formed by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, The Chofetz Chaim, and prepared by the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yehuda Zev Segal, zt”l, is a prayer for all of us, but especially those of us who take pen or keyboard in hand each day to post our thoughts online.

Master of the Universe, may it be Your will, Compassionate and Gracious G-d, that You grant me the merit today and every day to guard my mouth and tongue from speaking loshon hora and rechilus. And may I be zealous not to speak ill even of an individual, and certainly not of the entire Jewish people or a portion of it; and even more so, may I be zealous not to complain about the ways of the Holy One, Blessed is He. May I be zealous not to speak words of falsehood, flattery, strife, anger, arrogance, hurt, embarrassment, mockery, and all other forbidden forms of speech. Grant me the merit to speak only that which is necessary for my physical and spiritual well-being, and may all my deeds and words be for the sake of Heaven.

Amen, selah.

The Blessing of Boredom

From a fascinating article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation” I discovered this interesting little insight.

Journalist and author Naomi Alderman spoke about the difficulty of having to observe the Jewish Sabbath as a child. Her talk, “What It’s Like to Do Almost Nothing Interesting for 25 Hours a Week,” ended on an unexpected, touching note. “When we learn to tolerate boredom,” she said, “we find out who we really are.”

Superb. It also explains why I enjoy reading Judaic writings on airplanes.

Two Paths

Interesting quote from the first volume of Rabbi. Joseph Telushkin’s magisterial A Code of Jewish Ethics:

The Midrash teaches that if a person wishes to become a priest (Kohen) or a Levite, he cannot do so, since these roles are passed down by heredity from father to child. But any person, Jew and non-Jew alike, can become a tzaddik, a righteous person (Midrash Psalms).

Indeed.

O, Hashem. If it is your will that I shall never be a Get Tzedek, make me instead a goyische tzaddik.

Right

A Silver Torah Case used to hold a Sefer Torah...

Image via Wikipedia

Who am I, as not only a layman but, worse, a bar noach, to write of G-d and Torah? What chutzpah is this that someone like me would have the temerity to write of things about which I know so little?

Forgive me, Hashem. My learning is poor and my faith inadequate. But my heart is drawn to your Torah, and it brings my eyes, my soul, and my hands along for the ride.