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.
Join Yedidah Cohen, translator of the works of Rabbi Yehuda Lev Ashlag, and facilitator of study groups for many years, as she explores a text from the Zohar about the Holy unification on Shavuot in this 2019 video.
This text is one that many Jews study in the wee hours of Shavuot, but it's appropriate for all of us, all the time!
Join Rabbi Yaakov Zalman Labinsky in this audio recording of his talk on Shavuot, recorded in the final week of counting the Omer in 2019.
And read a whole library of two dozen posts on Shavuot at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash.
This Facebook comment is a good example of how and why I practice hisbodedut, which means praying out loud to God in my own words, in my own way. It's a blessing to have a role model, teacher and mentor in hitbodedut, and my role model is Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz, who lives in Jerusalem. We've met weekly on Skype for about 10 years so far.
Rabbi Schwartz wrote the following about hitbodedut in a recent blog post: "Hitbodedut - dialogue with Hashem: Connect to the answers you receive from the Beyond by speaking or writing what is on your mind to Hashem, The more that you speak/write, the more clarified you will become. Speak about anything and everything that you are dealing with in life. Speak every day."
Working with Rabbi Schwartz is the reason I am so comfortable and confident speaking out loud to God about anything, anytime. My prayer is to encourage other people as I've been encouraged, to "pay it forward"in this world and beyond!
It seems strange to think we have to work at bonding with our own souls. Shouldn't it just be automatic? Doesn't it happen naturally, with no conscious effort on our part? No, not in this world at this time. Not really.
My own soul is a stranger to me if I don't seek it out and get to know it. Being invisible to my physical eyes, it's out of sight and mind. For me, the solution is prayer. I pray to God to help me get to know my soul, to understand it and make the best decisions for it. I want my soul to flourish and prosper as much as I want my body to be healthy.
Rabbi Simon Jacobson talks about bonding with our own soul in his book, A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer: Forty-Nine Steps to Personal Refinement - The Forty-Nine Days of Sefirah. He writes, "To cultivate your capacity to bond, even if you have valid reasons to distrust, you must remember that G-d gave you a Divine soul that is nurturing and loving and you must learn to recognize the voice within, which will allow you to experience other people's souls and hearts."
Tina Wasserman has no idea how much she has changed my life. Her famous Beet Hummus recipe is nearly always in my heart and in my home because it's my new favorite food!
If I ever meet Tina in person I will thank her and tell her the following:
1) Heating up the home-cooked or canned chickpeas really helps get a smoother hummus, mixed with the tahini before adding the other ingredients.
2) People in the Middle East don't consider hummus a dip. It's a food, eaten at room temp or slightly warm, NEVER cold. I eat it with a spoon.
3) Cooking my own chickpeas is cheap and easy, especially in a slow cooker, for immediate use or frozen and heated later for making hummus.
4) Canned beets have almost the same nutritional value as fresh, and they are harvested much smaller to fit in a can, which means they also taste better.
5) Use of a high-speed blender such as a VitaMix or BlendTec will result in a smoother hummus, in my experience.
The photo is a quote from one of the daily emails sent by Jewishmail.org. The numbered footnotes are: 1) Malachi 3:12 and 2) Kohelet 3:20.
Apparently a heat wave is expected in Israel on Lag B'Omer this year, starting at sunset on Wednesday, 5/22/2019, so people are being warned about building their traditional fires at large gatherings to celebrate the 33rd day of counting the Omer.
More than half a million visitors come to the town of Meron, site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who revealed The Zohar. Although I am not involved in the physical gatherings, I feel connected.
Reading this quote, I am reminded that Israel is a people, not only a geographic location. And I am among the people of Israel, called by The Baal Shem Tov, "G-d's land of desire."
That's us, the Jews. WE are G-d's land of desire, with great treasures within us.
Shortly after noon today, Friday May 17, 2019, I heard the news that Herman Wouk had passed away from this earth at age 103. May this blog post be an elevation for his eternal soul, this day and every day it fills the airwaves online.
I found a used copy of This Is My God many years ago, read it, hand-copied Herman's English translations of the Shema and the Shemona Esrai (Amidah) and used it to pray out loud as a Jew.
I was only eight years old when the book was published in 1959. But that didn't matter. It was right where I needed to find it, right when I needed to find it and read it.
This was years before I converted, and I didn't know many things. One of the things I didn't know was that the Amidah was a silent prayer, or softly whispered with moving lips only.
But what I didn't know didn't matter because I honestly believe Herman Wouk wrote his book and offered his English translation for people like me. I believe his love and care invested in This Is My God was the push I needed to become a Jew.
During the High Holy Days 5779, in 2018, I felt the need to thank Herman Wouk for writing his book that inspired me to convert. So I wrote him a letter and send it to a home address I found online.
But it was returned, so I put it in another envelope and sent it to the official address provided by his publisher. Oh, I pray he received my note of thanks while he was still alive!
May Herman Wouk's eternal soul and his precious heart for the Jewish people continue to inspire all my writing. blogging and posting, now and forever. And may may my gratitude serve as a continued elevation, as only Hashem understands. AMEN
Talking to other people about gratitude reminded me of my half-full or half-empty thought. To me, the answer to the question, "Half full of what?" is GRATITUDE.
Sometimes it's really hard to get in touch with gratitude. This fact is not a secret, its more like a chronic disease. Human beings tend to focus on the empty part, emptiness in their glass and in their lives.
Emptiness in our hearts is one of the most poignant vacant spaces commanding our attention and eating up our time. If we're human, we usually notice whatever we don't have first. For some reason, it's very interesting.
Making a list of what we DO have can flip the switch. It does for me!
Rabbi Daniel Ventresca makes short videos several times a week, and I listened to this 6-minute video early this morning. Then I listened to it again and again. Many times I've been reading Torah and had the distinct sense it was talking TO me and ABOUT me. In this video Daniel tells a memorable story that makes the same point - Torah is written to us TODAY. It is not merely historical and allegorical for us to learn from examples in the past.
Torah is alive in our lives today! This is not usually our first perspective, but it is living truth. I long for the day when Torah truth will be seen and known this way.
A vibrant pair of bluebirds is busily building a nest in our Texas Nextbox today. It's especially designed to allow ventilation during the hot Texas summer weather, and it's been inhabited by a nesting pair through July in past years.
Listening to the falling water in our bird fountain and watching the hummingbirds at their feeder and on Coral Honeysuckle vines growing up the front porch, I'm feeling blessed with Shalom Bayit - peace of the home - in and around our home this spring. The sounds and sights are healing, which makes me think about Rosh Chodesh Iyar beginning this Saturday 5/4/19 at sunset.
In Sarah Yehudit Schneider's Iyar article linked above she explains that learning to sit back and watch our own thoughts, "... can dissolve deeply engrained patterns at their root. It is extremely potent and cost efficient. It takes minimal effort and yields bountiful results. And, it is the special work of this month."
I am eager to explore this idea, for my own healing and for my friends and family as well.
Today is the seventh day of Passover 5779. It's been a very busy week of planting in our commercial Lemon Verbena fields as well as our big veggie garden. But it may have been even busier in my Jewish heart and soul as I absorbed some deep teaching from Rabbi Akiva Tatz and Rabbi Zushe Winner.
I took notes from their videos and posted them on SolitarySeder.com because there's 'way too much for one blog post here. May the learning ever deepen and may the learning never end!
It must be the phase in my Jewish prayer evolution for me to begin to understand the famous phrase, "service of the heart." Historically, Jews offered sacrifices in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but since the destruction of the Holy Temple we no longer offer animal, grain and oil sacrifices. That part is factual and simple.
What isn't so simple is when and how Jewish communal prayers recited in synagogues developed as a replacement for Temple sacrifices. Biblical scholars and archeologists have had discussions and disagreements on this topic for centuries.
The transition from bringing sacrifices to a priest to speaking personal and communal prayers was an enormous cultural change. It didn't happen all at one time or in one place.
What matters most to me is that my prayers are a genuine service of my heart, offered humbly and respectfully before my Almighty God.
Rabbi Tovia Singer provides deeply welcoming teachings regarding the necessity of Jews to welcome others to pray as a Jew. I agree with Rabbi Singer.
Jews are called to be a light unto the nations, and to me, that includes being a light in prayer. I pray with people who are not Jewish, and they pray with me.
Essentially, a Noahide Jewish prayer is one which acknowledges God as Creator, thanks God and humbly makes requests of God, the same way Jewish prayers do. No intercessor is involved between the person praying and his or her Almighty God. That is monotheism and that is the foundation of Jewish personal prayer as well as communal, traditional prayers.
Fifteen minutes into the following 2016 video (this link is set up to begin at 15:00) you'll hear Rabbi Singer's unforgettable explanation about the responsibility of Jews to serve as a light to the nations with their Jewish prayer. He is answering questions posed by this man, a Noahide who believed he was not welcome to pray as a Jew. Those days are over for him now, and hopefully for all of B'inei Noach and others worldwide!
As Rabbi Singer tells him, and all of us watching, "Everyone who is created in the image of God MUST pray like a Jew."
The Bible gives us an historical record of some things, and makes no mention of others. Today, we have an established tradition of communal Jewish prayer. It is what we know and what we do in synagogue together. But it is not a substitute for personal prayers. Here's a good summary from my Facebook post today, an exchange between LS and me about Biblical Jewish prayer:
LS: Although there is evidence of ancient synagogues all over Israel and the talmud talks about group prayer and jewish prayer is largely group oriented.
MSL: Yes, all true. What I mentioned is also true. Archeological, historical evidence is one thing, a very important thing. But the words in Torah and Chumash are also important. There are plenty of words about animal sacrifices because that's what people did at the time. Now we don't do it. The communal prayer is a substitute for animal sacrifices, as I understand it. My point is that personal prayers were, are and will always be important.
LS: Traditionally there was not much difference between group study and group prayer. i would compare it to the followers of socrates or plato. yes, they were studying their god but it was a study into the elements of the workings of the world. Jews were largely experts on law which was developing in and around ancient babylon. the law, Torah, was largely based on proper judicial practices for fiscal and personal violations, etc. what was given to God was all part of this. animal sacrifice was part of this but only a part. there was so much more to why the Jews practices prayer in a group. the talmud documents an incredible amount about what was going on in the temple. minyans, a group of 10, were the best form of prayer for a multitude of reasons back then.
MSL: I agree with you, Lili Shane. The minyans, however, and the sages and their students were men. I honestly believe women have always been the foremost experts in Jewish personal prayer, of which Hannah is the classic example.
LS: I really like what you are doing. I appreciate your deeply spiritual approach. it is something sorely lacking in all religions. i'm not sure historical religions were really based on deep spirituality. it was a job for those ancient priests. whether they were spiritual or not affected their job position but it was highly suspect. i think spirituality may have been tied to the prophets and maybe the judges, like Deborah. but their understanding of spirituality is deeply different from modern spirituality.
MSL: For sure. My understanding of the practice of multiple wives was not entirely for the man to have more fun, but mostly because there was so much work that one woman could not physically do everything needed to feed, clothe and raise a family. Women were already busy and exhausted beyond our comprehension. Other than praying, "Please help me, Lord," there wasn't much time or energy to be spiritual. So, the men did it. It was a practical necessity, IMO, and it became a tradition.
Blogging and writing a book on Jewish personal prayer is my current adventure as a Jew. As I prepare for Erev Shabbat tonight I'm reading what other people say online about their own adventures with prayer, as Jews and people moving through their conversion process.
Keeping Shabbat is definitely something to pray about, for all of us. Some Jews do it, some don't, but most of us find our own ways to honor the seventh day of Creation. After all, it's one of the 10 Commandments, or 10 Utterances in the Bible.
Having a relationship with Shabbat has kept me going through many phases of life, and I am collecting stories from other people who tell me how it affected their lives, too.
Very often I'll choose a theme for the weekly Sabbath, drawn from the Torah portion or from what's happening in my personal life. My theme this week is Jewish prayer - what a surprise! May my prayers and the prayers of all Jews resonate and reverberate throughout this world and the next,..
Confidence in Jewish prayer also involves confidence in me, in my ability to receive help and guidance from my Almighty God. Asking God for confidence and humility is how I get the help I need to develop confidence and humility... and courage.
I heard a marketing expert say, "Action cures fear," and although he was talking about taking action in marketing activities I realized it's true about prayer, too. Taking action in speaking and writing Jewish personal prayers cures any fear we may have about praying out loud or writing letters to God. It really works!
Expressing my doubts, fears and frustrations to God is how I get cured of them. For real! It happened this week when I found myself revising some old resentments. I asked God to help me drop that old pattern of thinking and it worked. A couple days later I realized the charge of frustration was completely gone. Thank you, Lord!