Pekudei — Perfecting your soul
February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
What happens when you pray regularly?
What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?
According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.
Let me explain. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God’s presence would be made manifest to them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This presence was considered dangerous: there was a clear need to set limits and define boundaries so that no one would be harmed by it.
So, as we read in this week’s portion, the Israelites were commanded to build a Mishkan – a portable tabernacle where they would encounter God’s presence in a structured way. And they became accustomed to offering sacrifices as part of their relationship to God.
Ultimately, the theology grew up around the Temple that these sacrifices were keeping the world in order. They were the activities that kept chaos at bay. And, as the society became more centralized and urbane, these activities became centralized around the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Israelites, the Temple was the very center of the world: the place where heaven and earth touch.
However, in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis were left with the question of what to do about worshipping God. Does it matter that we no longer have the commanded forms of sacrifice available to us? Or are there other possibilities that might be equally valid?
Let’s look at Maimonides’ answer. For Maimonides, the highest form of worship is the contemplation of God. The outward forms of prayer – such as the sacrificial system – are not what matters most. For him, the contemplation of God is what matters most.
The contemplation of God is no small task, as it requires sustained effort. Most of us nowadays are a bit sleep-deprived, so sitting still long enough to engage in contemplation might instead provide an opportunity for a nap. In Maimonides’ time, it’s possible that folks got more sleep – not being distracted by playing Flapping Birds on the iPad or catching up on missed episodes of Downton Abbey on Netflix – but they had at least as many opportunities to get sidetracked by business and family life as we do.
Therefore, Maimonides argues, God commanded the creation of the sacrificial cult, which would provide a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp without sustained effort and training. Moreover, engaging in sacrifice helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
In other words, he argues, if God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.'”
The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative:
“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”
These forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.
Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer available, each worshipper had to create prayer-forms individually. And that was exceedingly difficult.
It was for this reason that the Men of the Great Assembly developed a structured prayer-service. These are the folks who created the ‘baruch atah Adonai…’ formula that is so familiar to us today. They made it possible for us to lean on an existing form, rather than having to make it up ourselves each and every time we pray.
Maimondes also argues that the creators of these forms had a specific goal in mind: They created this structure so that the worshipper might use it to perfect himself or herself. Over the course of many years, he or she might learn the highest forms of contemplation.
In the Guide III:51, Maimonides lays out the steps to take toward perfection of one’s prayer, using the structure provided by the Men of the Great Assembly. As he begins:
“The first thing that you should cause your soul to hold fast onto is that while reciting the Shema prayer, you should empty your mind of everything and pray thus. You should not content yourself with being intent while reciting the first verse of Shema and saying the first benediction.”
It is not surprising that he chooses the Shema prayer as his starting-point, as it holds a special place in the prayer service. It is found in the Torah, and reflects the perfection of Moses. It is prescribed as the last words for a pious Jew to recite before death, just as it was uttered by Akiba in the last moments of his martyrdom. In addition, it provides a succinct profession of faith, one that affirms the singularity and uniqueness of God.
We should also note here that the direction of this movement prescribed by Maimonides flows from the simplest and most direct concept––the Shema––to the Bible, and then outward toward the rabbinic literature. This structure reflects the legal distinction of d’oreita (originating from the Torah, the most authoritative source) and d’rabbanan (originating from the rabbis, which is binding, but less authoritative). It also reflects the pattern for the education of the young.
Once this stage has been mastered, it is then possible to continue. As he explains:
“When this has been carried out correctly and has been practiced for years, cause your soul, whenever you read or listen to the Torah, to be constantly directed––the whole of you and your thought––toward reflection on what you are listening to or reading.”
Here Maimonides is teaching his reader how to develop the capacity for hyper-focused attention: First, learn how to clear the mind and consider just this one thing (a task that by itself takes years to master), and then, apply that focus to the Torah reading. Having done that, one might use the Torah text itself as a source of contemplation:
“When this too has been practiced consistently for a certain time, cause your soul to be in such a way that your thought is always quite free of distraction and gives heed to all that you are reading of the discourses of the prophets and even when you read all the benedictions, so that you aim at meditating on what you are uttering and at considering its meaning.”
Once this step has been mastered, it is then possible to focus on the remainder of the service; one approaches the Haftarah portion next, and then the various benedictions in the service. One should start with this singular affirmation expressed by the Shema, and then work methodically towards expanding this capacity for concentration in prayer.
Eventually, it might be possible to differentiate clearly between the prayer-state and mundane-state of mind, and to transition between them at will. Maimonides suggests that the quiet time after the day is finished is ideal for this kind of reflection:
“When, however, you are alone with yourself and no one else is there and while you lie awake upon your bed, you should take great care during these precious times not to set your thought to work on anything other than that intellectual worship consisting in nearness to God and being in His presence in that true reality that I have made known to you and not by way of affectations of the imagination.”
Having used the prayer-service as a vehicle for training, it is now possible to achieve, and achieve at will, that state of hyper-focused intentionality.
During these moments at the end of the day when there is quiet in the house, it is possible to think without interruption. Therefore, Maimonides admonishes, do not waste this precious time thinking about business or household concerns; you have had all day to do so. This quiet time is designated for contemplation at the highest level.
So, let us return to our opening questions: what happens when you pray regularly? What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?
According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.
Praying regularly helps us develop the discipline to think about the big questions. Our culture teaches us to run away from them: to cover them up with noise and business, to drown them with consumption in excess, to avoid them through diversion and entertainment. But such activity leaves us feeling hollow.
Praying regularly allows us to cut through the noise and clutter, so that when you stop to think about the big questions – the questions that keep you up at night – you have a structured, disciplined way of considering these things, rather than being held ransom by your anxieties and insecurities.
In other words, what happens when you pray regularly, really pray, according to Maimonides? You perfect your soul.
Vayakhel — O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz?
February 21, 2014 § 3 Comments
It seems that every time that I get a cold it goes straight for my voice. Instead of my usual mezzo-soprano, my voice has spent most of this week somewhere in the baritone range. My deepest gravelly voice, in fact, sounds a bit like Janis Joplin, which is precisely why I have one of her songs on my mind today:
O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
I love that song! It’s just so direct about it.
But we all know, of course, that this kind of pleading does not work. We are all sadly familiar with the fact that God does not take special orders of this kind. It’s usually something we learn as kids: you can’t get a brand-new toy by asking God. You’d have better luck asking Grandma, or saving up your allowance.
So, then, what is the purpose of prayer, if it is not to get stuff? It must have some kind of larger meaning – or else why do we engage in it?
One possible answer to this difficulty is that it is for God’s benefit. We engage in worship because God commands it. It is, after all, one of the demands placed upon us by our covenant: God commands us to make a sanctuary.
For example, we read in our portion today, “This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece.” On the face of it, therefore, the purpose of bringing all of these gifts is to offer them to the Lord, to build a sanctuary to honor God.
Interestingly, however, some of the midrashim reject this interpretation. For example, consider this one:
“The whole paraphernalia of the Tabernacle, the candlestick, table, altar, holy things, the tent and curtains – what was their purpose? Israel addressed the Holy One Blessed be He: Lord of the universe, the kings of the heathens have their tent, table, candlestick and incense burner and such are the trappings of sovereignty; for every king has need of them. Should not then Thou which art our King, Saviour and Redeemer possess the same trappings of sovereignty, that it may become known to all the inhabitants of the world that Thou art the King?
“The Almighty answered: You who are flesh and blood have need of this, but I have no such need, since there is no eating or drinking associated with Me, and I have no need of light.” So it’s not for God after all! Why is it commanded then?
In this Midrash, God goes on to tell the Israelites that they are already worthy of divine concern due to the merit of their ancestors. God specifically cites their connection to the Avot – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We would also add the Imahot – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
But the Israelites object to God’s answer: we do not pray to them, we pray to You. In other words: even though they merit God’s attention and protection on this basis, they still have a need to engage in prayer. For example, what should they do when they need to specifically ask for something in particular? In response, God tells them, okay, fine: “make what you desire but make them as I command you… as it is stated: ‘Make Me a sanctuary…a candlestick…a table…an altar for burning incense.’”
It is like a parent saying to a child, ‘anything that you need I will give you.’ And the child responds: ‘yes, but what about the things that I want? How do I ask for things that I want?’ And the parent finds some structured way to accommodate the child’s request.
What that means, according to this Midrash, is that the sanctuary is not for the honor of God; and it is not to demonstrate the glory to God the way we might demonstrate the glory of an earthly king. Rather, it is provides a structured way to ask for things.
But now we are back to our original problem: it’s not like we can ask God for a Mercedes Benz. We don’t get what we ask for, at least not in any sort of direct, easy-to-catalogue way.
And that’s a genuine pity, of course, because there are so many things that we want, and so many things that we need. Eventually, we learn to ask for bigger things than a new bike, bigger things than a Mercedes Benz. We ask for things like health, long life, children, employment, fulfillment, happiness.
Yet we discover that these things do not come to us magically, just for the asking. It’s one of the great surprises of adulthood: after having the majority of our needs fulfilled by our parents, we venture out into the world to discover that we are not provided with this same kind of support wherever we go. Apparently the world does not owe us anything: not health, not wealth, not happiness. And that can be a rude shock when it comes. Who will take care of me? We find that we must take care of ourselves.
So, then, what are we trying to accomplish in prayer? What is the point of worship? Why do our prayers include requests for God’s response, if we don’t have magical powers over the Godhead?
One possibility is that prayer helps us sort out what we really want, what we really need. In hearing ourselves speak, we realize whether we are asking for something worthy or not. It could be that prayer is our way of coping with this most basic difficulty: an acknowledgment of our boundless need and our limited means of fulfilling that need.
For example, whenever I visit people in the hospital, I will pray with them, if they are willing. And in that prayer, I will state some of our hoped-for outcomes: real ones, like “…and may this person go home soon in good health…” as well as miraculous ones, such as “…and astound his or her doctors with the speed at which healing takes place…”
The point of this act of prayer in the hospital room is more than saying “I hope you get well soon.” It’s a nice sentiment, of course. And the point of prayer in the hospital room is more than the good cheer that comes with having a visitor. It’s a welcome sight as well, of course. But there’s more going on here than that.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Reading or studying a prayer is not the same as praying. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God.” Prayer addresses what is transcendent.
But if you are agnostic about God or a non-believer, then the act of prayer does seem to be pointless. Why should we speak of something transcendent, when all we know is what we can sense here and now?
Yet is that really the case? I have found, in my own experience, that we really do sense more than what’s just here and now. What is that energy that fills a room and causes a crowd to cheer at once? What is that energy that fills our eyes with tears when the bride comes walking down the aisle? What is that energy that overflows our heart when we hold a new-born child? What is that energy that we feel and know when a congregation prays on our behalf?
That is the energy that we are addressing in the act of prayer. Prayer is more than merely talking to ourselves, and more than listening to ourselves talk. There is more to it than stating a wish, no matter how dearly felt it is. There is something greater at work here, in fact. In the act of prayer, we are asking that the energy that is available to us be put to work to good ends.
In other words: if you find that you really cannot grasp hold of the full concept of God – if the idea seems entirely too difficult, too fraught, too complicated – then think of it in smaller terms. Make a modest request. Ask that energy be available to you, energy to do what is right. Nothing more. No throne of glory or angels on high: just a small, modest request that you have the energy you need to do what is right.
I started this process of becoming Jewish without a belief in God and with a doubt that prayer can be worthwhile. If my own spiritual life is any indication: if you concentrate on that smaller goal, that practice will ultimately lead you to its source, to something grander and larger. Learn to focus on the energy you can discern, and you will eventually find something much greater than yourself. You are not alone in this search.
Ki Tisa — Miley Cyrus and Graven Images
February 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
It is indeed something of a surprise that the Israelites turn to worship a golden calf so soon after receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. One has to wonder: were they not listening? Did they not hear the part about ‘no graven images’? Were they napping when God said, ‘you shall not worship any gods before Me’?
And, not surprisingly, both Moses and God get very angry in response to their misdeeds. God is the first to know, and therefore is the first to get angry. When he hears what they have done, Moses intercedes on their behalf, asking God to forgive them. He reminds God that the people had just come out of Egypt.
When they come to that line in our text, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand,” our ancient sages ask themselves, ‘why does Moses remind God of Egypt? Surely God already knew that they came up out of Egypt. To what purpose does this serve? Why would he say something that God already knows?’
And of course, the sages provide an answer. “Rabbi Huna said: It can be compared to a wise man who opened a perfumery shop for his son in a street frequented by women of ill repute.”
Rabbi Huna is giving us a parable, one that explains why the time in Egypt contributed to the Israelites’ misbehavior. In the case of the young man in a perfume shop, he writes, “The street did its work, the business also did its share; and the boy’s youth contributed its part, with the result that he fell into evil ways.”
Each of these factors contributed to the outcome: he was spending time in a place where lewd behavior was practiced, engaged in a trade that would bring him into contact with that lewd behavior, and at an age when he would be susceptible to those influences.
Rabbi Huna continues, “When his father came and caught him engaged in lewd behavior, he began to shout…But his friend who was there said: ‘You ruined this youth’s character and yet you shout at him! You ignored all other professions and opened a shop for him just in a street where prostitutes dwell!’
In other words: does the father not bear some of the guilt in this case?
“This is what Moses said: “Lord of the Universe! You ignored the entire world and caused your children to be enslaved only in Egypt, where all worshipped lambs, from whom Your children learned (to do corruptly). It is for this reason that they have made a Calf! … Bear in mind whence You have brought them forth!”
We pick up cues from our environment as to what constitutes appropriate behavior. After spending years in a place that worshipped idols, the Israelites naturally would think that such behavior was entirely appropriate to the situation.
This year, Miley Cyrus was one of the ten finalists for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Ultimately, she did not win: they chose Pope Francis, a much better choice from my perspective. But it is interesting that she was one of the possibilities.
If you do not follow pop culture particularly closely, you might not know who she is. But if you are under 12 and female, it is very likely that you know her work. She spent a number of years as a Disney darling, starring in the show “Hannah Montana” about a teenager who has a double life as a pop star. In the show, she is a brunette who wears a blonde wig when she performs, so all of her friends are unaware of her star status. As if none of them were smart enough to recognize her.
If you are quite a bit older than 12 and a fan of the Video Music Awards (also known as the VMAs) you might also be aware of Miley Cyrus’s work. At the VMAs in August, she engaged in a very provocative dance number with Robin Thicke, leaving precious little to the imagination. It was not the most family-friendly entertainment.
And so, in response to that event, I wrote a blog post about it, one that went quietly viral on Facebook, with more than 4,000 views, well past my usual readership. It would seem that I had hit a nerve. It would appear that I touched on a deeper issue, one more important than costume changes at an awards ceremony. Here’s an excerpt:
“Dear Miley Cyrus,
“You certainly received a lot of attention for your VMA performance this past week, which was undoubtedly your intention. It is likely that you think of this event as a rousing success. And the backlash against…your performance is probably a bonus, from your point of view, because we are all now talking about you. Even bad publicity is good publicity, right?…
“Here is the real issue: You had a fan base of millions of young girls who looked up to you and pretended to be you. They had your likeness on their bedroom walls. They sang your songs into their hairbrushes.
“And then you became an adult and that role no longer fit you. Tired of your old image, you shaved off your hair. Good for you.
“So you were standing there with your hair cropped, all eyes on you, a brand-new adult. Imagine what would have happened then had you turned to that fan base and said, ‘girls, you do not have to be pretty or sweet in order to matter in this world. Cut your hair if you want or leave it long – that’s not what’s important. Who you are is what matters most. Choose your own path, and find your own voice.’ Imagine what would have happened then.
“You were, in a word, dangerous. Whole industries would suffer if these girls become empowered. Who is going to buy all this lip-gloss and mascara? Insecurity is what sells product. And more: imagine you had a real message, something deeper and more profound than the simple exhortation to ‘find yourself,’ and that you too had been encouraged to find your own voice. What would you have said then? I really wish that we knew.
“Instead, your handlers convinced you that the best way to break out of your candy-coated shell is to start pole dancing, stripping, and twerking…
“Here is an exercise for you: imagine, for a moment, that you had gone out there on the VMA stage without a microphone that night. Imagine the exact same performance, but without a sound. Would you have garnered the same attention? Yes, absolutely yes. Would we be saying the very same things about you this week? Oh yes, definitely.
“You know what that means? You have been effectively silenced. Your voice was not heard. You were merely there as eye candy, and not as a singer. You are now replaceable…
“[The problem with this situation is that] your God-given talent will eventually want to make itself heard. If you continue on this path, it is going to take more and more drugs to silence it. Your handlers will see to it that you get them. They will be there, ready to go, even before you ask. And then they will tip off the paparazzi regarding the publishable antics of the latest ‘hot mess’…
“In the meantime, I wish all the best to you. I hope that you eventually prove to be better than all of this. I suspect that you are.”
A few people thought I was unduly harsh in my assessment, but most thought that I had exactly pinpointed the problem. Unfortunately, her situation is hardly unique. There are others: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, and Selena Gomez, to name a few.
Every child star faces intense pressure, of course, and many of them try to get attention through sensational means.
But it seems to me that the experience of these women is particularly troubling because it all seems so cynical and deliberate. At the very moment that they are about to come into their own, these young women suddenly veer toward the most vulgar forms of self-expression, as if that’s their highest value.
Should we be worried? Should we be concerned about this? After all, performers come and performers go. It’s a cutthroat business and they are well-compensated for their efforts. They are supposed to be replaceable, right?
No, actually. They’re not. They are talented young women who serve as role models to millions of young girls. And we cannot afford to give girls the message that their role models are expendable. Otherwise, we risk teaching them that women are worthwhile only so long as they are young, charming, and attractive.
There is a second problem here as well, one directly related to our Torah portion this week.
The shows themselves – the live-action Disney shows for tweens – are also part of the problem. Watch one of these shows sometime and you will see what I mean. Watch “Hannah Montana,” or “The Suite Life,” or “Wizards of Waverly Place.” What you will see is an environment where the kids are rewarded for finding ways around their parents’ wishes. You’ll see an environment where it is acceptable and encouraged for tweens to talk back, to be cruel, and to be snarky. You’ll see an environment that teaches kids how to get what they want through manipulation of the adults, most of whom are largely clueless. It’s a training ground to teach kids how to talk their parents into buying more and more products, one that equates love with buying gifts. And it’s one in which material things define a person’s value.
If we don’t want our kids worshipping the Golden Calf of pointless cruelty in the service of endless consumerism, we have a responsibility to police these shows. If you are a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle, sit down with the kids you know and find out what they are watching. Because we can’t trust Disney to be the one to teach them right from wrong. It might seem harmless, but letting them watch the Disney live-action tween shows without supervision is a bit like setting them up with a perfume shop in the red light district: despite your best intentions, you are bringing them into regular contact with a corrupting influence.
What do the Israelites do next? They build a sanctuary.
What that means for us: instead of letting kids watch those kinds of shows, we should bring them here, even if they’re not old enough to sit through a service. We will be indulgent if they’re wiggly. What we offer here at the Temple is a place where kids are valued for who they are, rather than what they have. What we offer here is a community that will give genuine support for an appropriate parental role. What we offer here is a set of alternate values, counter-cultural values, grounded in the ethics of the divine.
 From Nehama Leibowitz, “Ki Tissa 3: Moses Interceded,” New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, pp. 570-1. I have softened the language somewhat, in light of the fact that there might be children present when I deliver this sermon.