After weeks of preparation and travel to visit family I returned home with a renewed sense of identity, as a person and as a Jew. My activity has begun to more closely follow my identity.
It's probably not a coincidence I've become aware of what's happening to me during the week of Parsha Lech Lecha. In Hebrew, that phrase means "go, go for you." For me, personally, this year it means "Go for it!"
What a blessing to grow into my connection with my Almighty Father in prayer and in life by beginning to pray in Hebrew. I am using a transliteration of The Shema and The Amida, but the sound of my voice speaking Hebrew is a powerful experience for me.
Rabbi Tovia Singer has said, over and over in his YouTube videos, that any translation of Torah or Hebrew scripture is inaccurate. No words can capture the essence of the original Hebrew. Today I am in complete agreement. And it has only just begun for me!
The way the light comes into our lives is different in every moment. It may shine brightly, or it may be hazy, as though filtered through a curtained window.
It's easy to understand how physical light works this way. We grow up seeing light and we study light in science class in grade school.
But most of us didn't have any exposure to the reality or the study of spiritual light. We have no conception of what it is or how it works. Not really.
I noticed something significant about physical light lately, when I almost walked into a big spider web with early morning sunlight shining on it. As I approached it from the side, it was completely invisible. But when it came into view I shot the photo below, with the web shining brightly and a HUGE wolf spider sitting at home in the center.
I didn't see the physical danger until the light shone on it. Maybe spiritual light works this way, too. Maybe we cannot see danger until we see it from a certain angle, in a certain light. I'm thinking and praying about that idea now.
This video encapsulates my growing and learning for Elul 5779, preparing for Rosh Hashana 5780. It describes hitbodedut, or speaking out loud to God and asking for help, to do teshuva (returning to goodness) for wherever we missed the mark and fell short this year.
And it describes this process of hitbodedut as judging ourselves. When we speak out loud before our Almighty God and we ask for help to return to HIS idea of what is good, not our own idea of it, then we have determined that we need improvement. I have judged myself and found myself lacking.
That is the first main point in the video.
The second main point in the video is this - double jeopardy. Similar to a court of law in this world, we cannot be judged twice for the same crime (or failure to hit the mark) and therefore we are not subject to another trial. Double jeopardy is not allowed in this world and it is not allowed in the next world either.
These two main points are very, very interesting and food for my prayers during these last days of Elul.
Miriam Yerushalmi is an author of books for children and for adults. She's an engaging speaker, and this video on marriage is truly transformative. I've watched it several times already.
In this video, we hear Dr. Yedidah Cohen of Safed in Israel presenting a class and talking about repentance. She has a fascinating way of describing it, and I'm grateful to have this perspective to consider during the month of Elul prior to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in October this year.
Yedidah explains the Hebrew word Teshuva is from two words, Teshuv and Hei, meaning return to God. Our repentance is not supposed to be self-flaggelation at all. It is supposed to return us to our own true nature in our relationship with God.
What a blessing to enjoy this bedrock, eternal perspective during Elul 5779 and the High Holy Days of 5780.
August 21, 2019 is a very powerful day because it's Parsha Re'eh on Shabbat, and it's also Rosh Chodesh Elul. This is the day the gates of Teshuva open, according to the Ari. Rabbi Alon Anava explains in the video below.
Following is Chapter 27 of Psalms. Reading it every morning and evening from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur will, according to the Ari, assure a great year filled with blessings, and it will even annul a scheduled harsh decree.
All difficulties will be annulled for me and my family. We will all be judged favorably. All 13 channels of compassion are open for us now.
1Of David. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened? אלְדָוִ֨ד | יְהֹוָ֚ה | אוֹרִ֣י וְ֖יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א יְהֹוָ֖ה מָע֥וֹז חַ֜יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד:
2When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me-they stumbled and fell. בבִּקְרֹ֥ב עָלַ֨י | מְרֵעִים֘ לֶֽאֱכֹ֪ל אֶת־בְּשָׂ֫רִ֥י צָרַ֣י וְאֹֽיְבַ֣י לִ֑י הֵ֜֗מָּה כָּֽשְׁל֥וּ וְנָפָֽלוּ:
3If a camp encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; if a war should rise up against me, in this I trust. גאִם־תַּֽחֲנֶ֬ה עָלַ֨י | מַֽחֲנֶה֘ לֹֽא־יִירָ֪א לִ֫בִּ֥י אִם־תָּק֣וּם עָ֖לַי מִלְחָמָ֑ה בְּ֜זֹ֗את אֲנִ֣י בוֹטֵֽחַ:
4One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple every morning. דאַחַ֚ת | שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהֹוָה֘ אוֹתָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵֽית־יְ֖הֹוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַֽחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֜הֹוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֽוֹ:
5That He will hide me in His tabernacle on the day of calamity; He will conceal me in the secrecy of His tent; He will lift me up on a rock. הכִּ֚י יִצְפְּנֵ֨נִי | בְּסֻכּוֹ֘ (כתיב בְּסֻכֹּה֘) בְּי֪וֹם רָ֫עָ֥ה יַ֖סְתִּירֵֽנִי בְּסֵ֣תֶר אָֽהֳל֑וֹ בְּ֜צ֗וּר יְרֽוֹמְמֵֽנִי:
6And now, my head will be raised over my enemies around me, and I will sacrifice in His tent sacrifices with joyous song; I will sing and chant praise to the Lord. ווְעַתָּ֨ה יָר֪וּם רֹאשִׁ֡י עַל־אֹֽיְבַ֬י סְֽבִֽיבוֹתַ֗י וְאֶזְבְּחָ֣ה בְ֖אָֽהֳלוֹ זִבְחֵ֣י תְרוּעָ֑ה אָשִׁ֥ירָה וַֽ֜אֲזַמְּרָ֗ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה:
7Hearken, O Lord, to my voice [which] I call out, and be gracious to me and answer me. זשְׁמַע־יְהֹוָ֖ה קוֹלִ֥י אֶ֜קְרָ֗א וְחָנֵּ֥נִי וַֽעֲנֵֽנִי:
8On Your behalf, my heart says, "Seek My presence." Your presence, O Lord, I will seek. חלְךָ֚ | אָמַ֣ר לִ֖בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ:
9Do not hide Your presence from me; do not turn Your servant away with anger. You were my help; do not forsake me and do not abandon me, O God of my salvation. טאַל־תַּסְתֵּ֬ר פָּנֶ֨יךָ | מִמֶּנִּי֘ אַל־תַּט בְּאַ֗ף עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ עֶזְרָתִ֥י הָיִ֑יתָ אַל־תִּטְּשֵׁ֥נִי וְאַל־תַּֽ֜עַזְבֵ֗נִי אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעִֽי:
10For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord gathers me in. יכִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽ֜יהֹוָה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי:
11Instruct me, O Lord, in Your way, and lead me in the straight path because of those who lie in wait for me. יאה֚וֹרֵ֥נִי יְהֹוָ֗ה דַּ֫רְכֶּ֥ךָ וּ֖נְחֵנִי בְּאֹ֣רַח מִישׁ֑וֹר לְ֜מַ֗עַן שֽׁוֹרְרָֽי:
12Do not deliver me to the desires of my adversaries, for false witnesses and speakers of evil have risen against me. יבאַל־תִּ֖תְּנֵנִי בְּנֶ֣פֶשׁ צָרָ֑י כִּ֥י קָֽמוּ־בִ֥י עֵֽדֵי־שֶׁ֜֗קֶר וִיפֵ֥חַ חָמָֽס:
13Had I not believed in seeing the good of the Lord in the land of the living! יגל֗וּ֗לֵ֣֗א֗ הֶֽ֖אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּטֽוּב־יְהֹוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים:
14Hope for the Lord, be strong and He will give your heart courage, and hope for the Lord. ידקַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹ֫וָ֥ה חֲ֖זַק וְיַֽאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֜קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָֽה:
Because there are LOTS of traditional Jewish prayers scheduled to be recited each day, in a group with others or alone, the notion of solitary prayer is often overlooked. Shuli Kleinman posted about Hisbodedus this week.
She wrote, "By speaking out loud to Hashem about our personal subjective experiences, we come to be able to understand the messages that are concealing Infinite light and are then able to ask Hashem for the use of that light for Torah, avoda, chesed and mitzvahs."
I created the quote the the photo above because it's true that God knows me better than I know myself. That's a no-brainer. But what's not as well-known is how we can get to now ourselves better by speaking out loud to God, as often as possible. It is my best mental and emotional therapy for body, mind, heart and soul.
Sometimes the answers to my prayers come in disguise. I barely recognize them at all. Until I hear myself speaking out loud to my Almighty God and what has occured in my mind, my feelings or my life comes right out of my mouth and goes into my own ears, I may never realize my prayers were answered.
When I say they may "come in disguise," it's my nice way of saying the answers to my prayers may look like something I REALLY don't want at all. The answers to my constant prayer to grow and know God better tomorrow than I know Him today are often the hidden ones, disguised as aggravations, frustrations, arguments and misery.
I'm thrilled to say I discovered a gigantic answer to prayer this week. Nobody needs to hear the gory story of my big argument with a loved one. Nobody else but me really needs to understand how I finally came to grips with the fact that (no big surprise, perhaps) being right is not necessarily relevant.
Being right is irrelevant when God's plan is best served by observing what's happening and remembering my purpose on this planet at this time - being a Light Unto The Nations. That's the purpose of every Jew.
I'm barely starting to get it. I had my own ideas about what being a light unto the nations might mean, what it would look like and sound like. Turns out, God has His own ideas about it, and God's ideas are 'way better than mine.
Yearning seems to have gone out of fashion, now that we have nearly everything at our fingertips digitally. We can have and know whatever we want, whenever we want it. Well, maybe not everything.
Josh Bernoff wrote a post called How To Yearn in 2016, but I just read it today. Turns out, I yearn often. I'm not ashamed of it at all because it seems to be a favorite activity of my soul. Frankly, I believe our eternal souls are built for yearning. It's what they (we) do.
My favorite quote from the post is, "Adjust your dream. Pivot to a new space that leverages your existing skills. Yearn intelligently. You find the secret path. And that could take you anywhere." Bernoff is talking about yearning in the context of a business or a career.
I am talking about yearning in the context of the journey of my soul. It never ends, so there's a lot of pivoting going on, as Bernhoff advises, "...pivot to a new space."
A new space is not what my soul needs, It's in the perfect space, being connected to God. The new space that's needed, from my perspective, is in my heart and mind's understanding of my soul's yearning. My head and my heart seems to get all caught up with satisfying short-term desires, although they may seem long-term in this life.
My soul yearns for the long term, eternal desire for good. Jewish yearning is soul yearning.
Gratitude toward other people is one good thing, but gratitude toward our Almighty God is another. I've noticed that some people get defensive, saying something like, "But gratitude toward other people IS gratitude to God."
My response to them is, "Yes and No."
Expressing gratitude to God as written in traditional Jewish prayers, and expressing gratitude directly to God in our Jewish personal prayers is how we develop a relationship with our Creator.
Expressing gratitude to another person is one way we develop or strengthen our relationship with that person whose eternal soul is connected to God. But it's not the same as our relationship WITH God.
An attitude of gratitude toward other people and situations in our lives is certainly part of our relationship with God. It's how we live what we learn in Torah and from just being alive. Most of us live and learn to be grateful and to express our gratitude eventually.
Give this video a few seconds to begin. It's 10 minutes long and if you're experiencing the urge to become Jewish, or have experienced that inexplicable urge in the past, Rav Pinson is talking to you.
His explanation of the probable, spiritual causes for the desire to convert to Judaism is soul-satisfying, even though it is also mystical. Don't miss Rav Pinson's description of the souls of people who are driven, meaning more than motivated, to find a way to be Jewish in this life. It's truly comforting.
Jews, and many non-Jewish spouses, friends and family members, will be observing Shabbat on Friday at sunset this week. And if we had a drone that could fly over hundreds of Jewish homes taking photos of their gatherings, we would not see two of them that matched-up perfectly.
Setting aside the Sabbath Day is something each person/famiy group does in a unique way. There would be commonalities, of course, such as candle lighting and loaves of challah. But even those familiar customs are not obligatory.
The primary obligation in Torah is to set aside the seventh day of the week to honor and observe God's handiwork of Creation. It's to honor God as the Creator. We are His Creation, and we are the recipients of all Creation has to offer.
After each crazy week of activity, the idea of Shabbat is to stop, just stop and remember we are not in charge here on this planet. God is in charge of us and of everything else. Surely, one day a week is not enough for such an important idea!
Reading a Jewish Bible is foundational to our Jewish education. It consists of three parts, called Torah, Prophets and Writings in English. It has (and needs) no New Testament. The Torah, Prophets are Writings are the original testament to the sovereignty of God, and to our relationship with Him.
So much information is available online now, to study the Jewish Bible and to begin to understand it in English as well as Hebrew. Here's a very thorough post on My Jewish Learning that provides links and a clear outline for Bible study, which is usually called Torah or Tanach study.
Without a congregation or a personal teacher it's entirely possible to conduct Bible study at home or wherever you travel. Sefaria.org offers an easily searchable and authentically Jewish translation of Tanach, the Jewish Bible, as well as other texts. Sefaria.or is my go-to website when I'm using digital resources to study.
Traditional Jewish prayers are inclusive. We are praying for ourselves and for our people. Jewish peoplehood is unique in the world, as it is unlimited by geography, gender, race, color and many other factors. Jewish peoplehood is real (Israel).
Years ago I remember reading, "Not one precious drop of love is ever wasted." And I was deeply impressed with the idea.
I was so impressed that I remembered the idea and it has formed a theme for my life, for several decades so far.
Today I read these words in an email, from Praying With Fire by Rabbi Heshy Kleinman:
"Prayers are stored and answered in the manner and at the time that Hashem deems best. All sincere prayers are answered with good."
I started thinking about love and prayer, and how much they are the same, or at least it's possible they can be the same for us. Love and prayer are intense expressions of emotion, or they can be if we let them.
My friend Shuli Kleinman posted this important idea a while back, and I've remembered it to share now:
"...the darkness can be turned into light, but not by investing talent and goals to it. Darkness becomes light when the mask over the light is taken off, meaning that there is an inherent understanding of the falsehood of the darkness and that appealing to the light behind it will lift us out of it."
And my friends at Breslove of Charleston posted the following, which fits together with Shuli's quote above, in my own nderstanding and life experience:
"Rabbi Nachman teaches, The places that seem lowest of all and furthest from God actually contain the most exalted life force of all, albeit concealed: namely the "secrets of Torah".
"One who has fallen very far should therefore understand that in the very place in which he finds himself he can still draw close to God because of the exalted life force that is concealed there. When he succeeds in returning to God, exalted levels of Torah will be revealed through him. These are the "secrets of Torah". From Likutey Moharan I, 56
How to turn darkness into light, in my experience, is to trust God in every situation and believe we are capable and able to reveal Torah wherever we may be situated.
I love this old postcard with a drawing of a street in Safed, Israel. It draws me in and definitely makes me want to visit soon!
These words from a talk by Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz of
TheParadisePrinciple.com resonate with me today, looking out at the world and also looking into myself these days:
"There are a million subtle levels on which we fight our spiritual battles in life, and we have to understand that the pre-condition of our spiritual assent is actually a spiritual descent, an agreement to go down into the muck and to raise ourselves out of it."
Looking at my own challenges and the enormous global challenges we all face can be simply overwhelming. It can stop us in our tracks everyday, rendering us unable to move, or even think about moving.
But we are put here on this earth to persevere, and to overcome both physical, material challenges and spiritual battles as well.
This Shabbat I am thinking about being a spiritual warrior.
And Rabbi Schwartz continues on that subject, "Our inner evil inclination, the Yetzer Hara tries to keep us away from being who we are, and doing what G-d wants us to do.
"And as regards being a Spiritual Warrior, it tries to convince us that the only successful warrior is the one who can look back and see that everything is going smoothly."
Right! Since when does fighting a battle go smoothly? That is generally not how battles go, is it? It is only my inner evil inclination trying to convince me that rough patches in my life, and in the world, are evidence of failure.
Our battles are our tikkun, and tikkun is not failure. This is what we came here to do - to repair the world through our challenges.
Finally, Rabbi Schwartz says, " We have to know that the measure of success is not smoothness, with regard to a spiritual warrior. In fact, it’s the persistence and encouragement to not give up, no matter now difficult things are and how rough our lives may appear."
One of my favorite, most precious spiritual warrior friends is Yedidah Cohen in Safed. Check out her translations of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag's work, and her wonderful podcasts.
Free will is a mystery to most of us, until we decide to press in and search for its meaning in our own lives.
I did a search for quotes on free will, and the largest collection I found was on Goodreads. A total of 377 quotes (collected from authors) provides plenty of entertainment, but not much satisfaction, at least not for me.
Then I heard Rabbi Alon Anava say, "The whole point of free will is not the path you walk on. It's how you walk on it. That's the point of free will." Finally, I found a satisfying quote on the topic of free will.
An article by Rabbi Noah Weinberg brings free will into sharper focus for me, in my daily life. Free will is a choice:
"Greatness lies in how we resolve conflicts – in using our free will to grow – not to quit. To face reality – not to escape. To live and not to die. When we escape problems, we escape the chance of becoming great. It's a constant battle every moment of our lives."
First, we have to use our free will to WANT to be great, in some way. That's exciting to me, so now I'm using my free will to see what's getting in the way of my achieving greatness.
Here is Rabbi Weinberg's list of 5 levels of achieving free will, which I LOVE:
Level One: Don't be a sleepwalker. Make decisions actively.
Level Two: Don't be a puppet of society's goals, or a slave to your old decisions.
Level Three: Be aware of the conflict between the cravings of your body and the aspirations of your soul.
Level Four: Identify with your soul, not your body.
Level Five: Make your will God's will.
He was a highly-educated Christian scholar who became a pastor. And then he learned some things that made him question his religion. When he asked his teachers and Christian leaders, they would not help him. They wouldn't even speak to him anymore.
In my own life, years ago I experienced the thundering sound of silence from Christian leadership when questioning the Christian Bible, too. So Asher Wade's 10-minute story truely resonates with me. Watch, and I promise you'll never forget it! And here's his story from The Jewish Press in 2000.
There are really only two things we need to have a relationship with our Almighty God: 1) We need to have confidence in ourselves to speak and be heard. 2) We need to speak out loud to God. That's it. That's two things and neither one of them costs money or takes up any space in this world. They are free and completely portable.
Equipped with those two things, we can build a solid, satisfying relationship with God, wherever we are, however we show up today. Dovid Mark's video below is the best one I've ever heard on the subject of speaking easily and naturally to God. It's generous, welcoming and freeing. I will listen to it often!
, Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld is truly a breath of fresh air in this world. He talks about addiction, and of course he means to substances or activities, those things humans often choose out of weakness. That's something we all do in one way or another.
Joey Rosenfeld manages to convey this idea without offense, without sounding critical or assigning blame to humans who are struggling. He has a very powerful way of sharing and teaching about it.
Here's my comment on his Facebook post today, one that summarizes my own opinion on the topic of Jewish addiction to God, and it's followed by a wonderfully thoughtful Joey Rosenfeld video on The Inner World of Addiction.
Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler originally published his Jewish Theology book in 1918, and now, over 100 years later, we have free access to it on the web, as a pdf, for Kindle and in EPUB format. What a blessing! I've linked to the pdf version in this post.
Orthodox rabbis and teachers had not previously compiled such a basic theological outline of Judaism, so it was unprecedented in the history of Jewish literature. It will interest and inform people of all religions about the basic way a Jew sees the God of the Universe.
Rabbi Kohler was associated with the Reform movement in his native Bavaria and then within the United States, starting in 1869 as an organizer and pulpit rabbi. In 1903 he was elected to become President of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.
. Talking about talking to God is what I'm called to do in this life. It's been a great blessing to have a teacher, coach, mentor and rabbi to help me learn about and practice hisbodedut.
Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz posted the following on his blog today, providing an example of what he's helped me learn over the last decade; he calls it, "Hitbodedut - dialogue with Hashem: Connect to the answers you receive from the Beyond by speaking or writing what is on your mind to Hashem... Speak about anything and everything that you are dealing with in life. Speak every day..."
Having a teacher and mentor in speaking out loud to God for daily guidance is one of the greatest blessings in my life, and I pray for continuing opportunities to be a teacher and mentor in the same way.
Miriam Yerushalami's lovely 12-minute video meditation on receiving Torah is perfect for remembering that we receive Torah again and again, each and every day we choose it. I choose Torah today! May it ever be so!
I wrote this comment to a man in a Facebook group who simply asked, "What are some suggested readings for learning about Judaism?" Several people jumped in with suggestions, good suggestions, and even posted screenshots of book covers. Nothing wrong with all their suggestions, of course.
But I began to think about it from the perspective of the man asking a simple question. Honestly, all those books might seem like a big, overwhelming task. Even choosing one becomes a task, let alone buying it, reading it and understanding it.
That's why I dropped back to one basic, foundational question. I suggested he ask himself this question first, "Am I willing to see the Bible in an entirely different way, the way it originated over 3000 years ago?"
If a Christian person isn't open and eager to consider a different way of looking at the Bible, no book about Judaism will give them what they need. Willingness to explore a different perspective, a Torah perspective, doesn't come from a book. It comes from within the person who is longing for truth. At least that's how it worked for me.
Tablet Magazine's podcast called Unorthodox has produced two Shavuot episodes with interviews of converts, one in 2018 and one in 2019. Hearing the voices and stories of many Jews By Choice is a wonderful experience for anyone who has converted or is contemplating conversion.
Some congregations read the Book of Ruth on the second day of Shavuot because it's the story of a convert to the Jewish faith during the Spring harvest season. And other congregations arrange for people to complete their conversion process at services on Shavuot.
Ruth is a convert in the family lineage of King David, an inspiration for us all.