Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thursday Kavvanah, 3/31/2011 - Cleansing our Souls

The weekly parashah (portion of the Torah) is Tazria, which features less-than-appealing descriptions of a bizarre skin disease and other types of tum'ah, ritual impurity, and the purification rituals associated with them. This ranks as one of the most difficult parts of the Torah to relate to, especially since it is not clear what affliction tzara'at (the skin disease) actually refers to (although it is usually translated as "leprosy").

How might we read this as modern people? Is this passage about disease, or something else? Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a key figure in the 19th-century musar (ethics) movement, observed that the tzara'at passage follows the list of kosher and non-kosher animals, indicating that what comes out of one's mouth should be as pure as what goes in.

I would extend this to include all the sources of internal tum'ah, what you might call "spiritual impurity": not only speaking ill of others, but also corrupt thinking, placing more importance on possessions rather than relationships with people, failing to care for those in our society who need help, and so forth. Perhaps we need a modern ritual to help us cleanse our internal tum'ah, the impurity of the soul.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wednesday Kavvanah, 3/30/2011 - Stepping Out of Yourself

The Amidah (standing, silent tefillah) is on a higher level then other parts of the Jewish service. As such, it is customary to leave your regular self behind before beginning by taking three steps forward. (Many people also take three steps back first, so that they have room to take three steps forward, although it's the forward steps that are the essential choreography.) As such, we enter the court of the King (i.e. God) at the start of the Amidah.

I can think of many times that I would have liked to have left myself behind for a few minutes or a few months, but of course it is never so simple as simply taking three steps. However, the idea that we have the ability, even metaphorically, to step out of ourselves, suggests a certain control that many of us doubt that we actually have. Perhaps the physical and mental exercise of taking a few steps forward can bring that possibility closer to reality.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tuesday Kavvanah, 3/29/2011 - The Internal Tallit

When I was wrapping myself in my tallit (prayer shawl) this morning, one of the morning minyan attendees asked how I kept it so clean. I had personally never noticed that it was particularly clean, and actually have been wondering lately about what to do about a small tear in the atarah (the decorated portion that goes around the neck). In any case, I answered that I always fold it along the creases when I am done with it, and occasionally get it dry-cleaned.

A few minutes later, during the more contemplative part of Shaharit (the morning service), I hovered for a moment over one of my favorite lines, one that is, curiously, in small print in our siddur (prayerbook):

לְעולָם יְהֵא אָדָם יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם בְּסֵּתֶר ובגלוי וּמודֶה עַל הָאֱמֶת וְדובֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבו
Le-olam yehei adam yerei shamayim beseter uvgalui, umodeh al ha-emet vedover emet bilvavo...
We should always revere God, in private as in public. In our hearts, we should recognize truth and pursue it faithfully... (from Tanna Devei Eliyahu, a midrashic collection from the 10th c. CE)

The tallit is an outward manifestation of spirituality; a clean tallit should reflect inner spiritual cleanliness as well. Doing so takes a little care: metaphorically folding up your soul after use, and occasionally getting it dry-cleaned. Daily prayer can be part of that regimen, and Shabbat dinner with family, and holiday observances, and learning Jewish texts.

We put a lot of effort into our outward appearance. Our inward appearance should not be neglected.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Shemini 5771 - No Time for Silence

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, 3/26/2011.)

Very early Wednesday morning, my son Zev and I were up eating breakfast, listening to WNYC, and we heard the news of the bus bombing in Jerusalem. This was the first attack of this kind in four years, and such news is always very disturbing to me, because I lived in Jerusalem 11 years ago, and I rode those very buses. I find it very easy to identify with those who were there, the victims, the bystanders.

Zev, who is nearly 2, did not seem to appreciate the depth of this tragedy. I had nobody with whom to process this news, and so I kept it to myself, for the moment.

There is a big weakness in the enterprise of terrorism, a flaw that those who commit or support acts of terrorism appear not to consider very carefully. Certainly, terrorism kills people, scares many more people, and draws international attention to your cause. And these are its primary purposes.

But what terrorism does not do is bring warring sides together for the sake of reaching a peace agreement, or even a cease fire. In the case of Israel in particular, terrorist activity only strengthens the will of survivors, and of the wider, injured society. Israelis know from having lived with it forever that the way to deal with terrorists is to ignore them - to bury your dead in tears, to repair your buildings and your lives, and then to move on, if only somewhat more bitter and defiant. And the killers never seem to understand that every violent act committed against civilians diminishes the chances of any kind of peace, or at least a fair deal for the supporters of your cause, by a measurable amount.

Are Israelis, in the wake of this bombing and the dreadful killings in the settlement of Itamar two weeks ago, suddenly more eager to negotiate? Probably not. And particularly after seeing the video footage of Palestinians in Gaza celebrating the gory killing of the Fogel family by eating sweets in public.

Now, do you really think that the guys in the upper echelons of the Islamic Jihad group are thinking, “We’ve really done it this time! Now the Israelis will surely see our side of the story and, as our ally journalist Helen Thomas suggested last year, move back to Poland and Germany”? Probably not.

Perhaps there is nothing to say. Perhaps the best thing to do is move on.

Leaving acts of terrorism aside for a moment, we read this morning in Parashat Shemini about the death of Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). It is not entirely clear why God schmeisted them, although the Torah tells us that they offered “esh zarah,” “alien fire” on the altar of the mishkan (tabernacle). After doing so, they are consumed in a sudden, merciless flame.

Immediately following their deaths, the Torah states, in a terse, removed voice (Leviticus 10:3, Humash Etz Hayim p. 634):

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן.

Vayidom Aharon. Aaron was silent.

There is something that simply does not ring true in this episode. Was Aaron speechless, beyond words? Was he silent in front of his brother Moses at that moment, and then did he cry later? Was he really convinced that God’s actions were justified, and kept silent out of respect?

Rashi, trying to defend Aaron, points to a Talmudic midrash from Massekhet Zevahim that sees Moshe comforting his brother, telling him that his sons Nadav and Avihu died only to sanctify the name of the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God), and that he received from God a reward for his silence in the face of tragedy.

Really, how does one respond to such a line? Oh, of course! It’s a reward! I get it. I lose two out of my four sons, and I’m rewarded for being silent. Makes perfect sense!

Rashi, my friend, how could you say that? Who can be silent in the face of death? Who can be silent in the face of such a horrible loss?

And likewise, we cannot be silent in the face of the recent tragedies in Israel.

And yet, the most stunning silence is that of the Western world regarding all that has transpired across the Middle East in recent months. Let’s take a look around the Arab world:

Col. Muammar Qaddafi is at work trying to put down an all-out rebellion. How does he do it? By killing his own people. The death toll is estimated to be in the thousands.

Syrian troops are busy, probably at this very moment, trying to put down protests; in recent days they have killed perhaps 100 of their own brethren by opening their rifles at crowds of protesters.

In Bahrain, at least 10 pro-democracy protesters were killed in the past month, by Bahraini and Saudi troops. Bahrain! Not the wealthiest Persian Gulf state, but it’s not Gaza, either.

The list goes on. Yemen, where 50 anti-government protesters were gunned down last Friday. Egypt, where hundreds died for the departure of a single multi-billionaire president. And let’s not forget about the 20-year civil war in Somalia, where hundreds of thousands have died. And so forth.

Arab and Muslim states are murdering their citizens, yet outrage in the West is barely noticeable, while Israel’s detractors are in the streets after even one death caused by targeted military action against terrorist infrastructure.

Palestinian death tolls regardless, Israel continually takes a lot of heat: in the seemingly hostile world media (the BBC had difficulty merely reporting the killings in Itamar in an accurate way; yesterday’s New York Times article about the rockets that fell in Beersheva this week was underneath a picture NOT of the damage in Beersheva, but of a Gazan boy killed in an Israeli retaliation); there is also the ongoing effort of the BDS movement: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions; and of course there’s the Goldstone Report. (BTW: Libya was a member of the UN Human Rights Council, when it produced this report. Go figure.)

When the IDF entered the refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin in 2002 to root out terrorist activity, the world screamed “massacre!” Death tolls of up to 900 were claimed by Palestinian sources. There were anti-Israel protests in major cities around the world.

In the months that followed, even Human Rights Watch (no great ally of Israel) conceded that there was no such massacre, and that there were 27 militants killed and 22 civilians. Not those deaths were insignificant, mind you, but the figure was not quite on the scale of mass graves, as charged by some.

Returning to the present killings in the Arab world, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you, where are the international protests now? Who is out in the streets for the Libyan people? Sure, we’ve gone in with fighter jets and no endgame. And in Britain anti-war groups are protesting the Western intervention.

Canadian journalist Michael Coren, comparing the Jenin non-massacre of 2002 with the events of the past two months in an analysis for the Toronto Sun, observes,

“In the past few weeks we have seen genuine massacres and gruesome brutality. Thousands of people have now been murdered by Arab and Iranian governments and Arab and Iranian soldiers. In Libya, ordinary mourners attending the funerals of people shot dead in the streets were themselves targeted by snipers.”

Coren goes on:

“Yet where are the massive street protests in Europe’s large cities? Where are the calls to boycott countries? Where are the labour unions demanding action? Where are the student groups using words like “apartheid” and “Nazi”? Where are the moralistic editorials condemning Arab intolerance, Islamic barbarism and the need for Arab countries to be banned from international sporting, cultural and literary events?”

Elsewhere in the Torah, in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy 25:14, Humash Etz Hayim p. 1135), we read the following negative commandment:

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּבֵיתְךָ, אֵיפָה וְאֵיפָה: גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה
Lo yihyeh lekha beveitekha, eifah ve-eifah: gedolah uqtanah.
You shall not have in your house alternate measures: a larger and a smaller.

Do not weigh your produce, or perhaps your generosity, or your honesty, differently for different customers, says the Torah. In other words, no double standards. Allies or not, the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world have overstayed their tenures by a couple of decades. That their murderous attempts to maintain their grip on power goes on without the same kind of condemnation that the world heaps upon Israel is simply scandalous.

We are not permitted to be silent, like Aaron. There is no reward for complacency in the face of wanton murder by selfish dictators. There is certainly no qiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) in either the terrorist murders in Israel or the martyred protesters in the Arab world. And likewise, we should not stand for two sets of measures of world attention or condemnation.

Let me sum up with the following statement from Psalm 29 (verse 11), the words that conclude the recitation of Birkat HaMazon, the blessings after meals:

יְהוָה--עֹז, לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן; יְהוָה, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם.
Adonai oz le-amo yiten; Adonai yevarekh et amo bashalom
May God grant strength to His people; may God bless His people with peace.

Why in Birkat HaMazon? Because the wish for peace is everpresent, even surrounding such mundane activities as eating.

But wait! Go back to the first hemistich. Strength? We like to highlight peace, but not strength. One might read this as the slogan that marked the Reagan years of the Cold War, that is, “peace through strength.” But I prefer to read it as referring to strength of will, rather than military might. May God strengthen our resolve to overcome terrorist threats and bad actors to achieve peace. And may we have the strength not to remain silent.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thursday Kavvanah, 3/24/2011 - Seeking Holiness

Holiness is an elusive concept. The Hebrew, qadosh ("holy"), means that which is set aside from the daily, routine sphere of our lives.

Among the items found in this week's Torah reading, Parashat Shemini, is a list of animals that we are permitted to eat and those that are forbidden. We know of this concept as kashrut, that is, foods that are "kosher."*

But what is the reason given for kashrut? It is not that the permitted animals are cleaner, or healthier, or better-behaved. Rather, it is only that these are the ones that God has indicated are within the bounds of holiness. See Leviticus 11:45:

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי.
Ki ani Adonai hama-aleh etkhem me-eretz Mitzrayim lihyot lakhem lelohim; vihyitem qedoshim ki qadosh ani.
For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.

The point of kashrut, as well as all the rest of the mitzvot (commandments), is to help us to find the holy moments. It's not just about food - it also includes everything we do. And sometimes, all you need to do is focus, to look beyond the day-to-day mundanities, to find those parts of your life that are fittingly set aside.

* The Hebrew word is "kasher" (accent on the second syllable), meaning "fitting." Our English word "kosher" comes from the Yiddish/Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word; the French, however, pronounce it like the Hebrew: cachère.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Shabbat Zakhor 5771 - Celebrating Appropriately in the Context of Tragedy

On this Shabbat Zakhor, this Shabbat of remembrance, we remember what Amaleq did to the Israelites as traveled through the desert, and vow to blot out his name in preparation for the raucous festival of Purim.

The world is rife with tragedy this week: Amaleq struck in the Israeli settlement of Itamar, and of course there is the ongoing crisis in Japan.

As often happens, tragedy is bracketed with happy occasions, and ready or not we celebrate Purim tomorrow night.

The four mitzvot of Purim are:

1. Hearing Megillat Esther (the book of Esther) read from a kosher scroll
2. Delivering mishloah manot (gift packages) to friends and neighbors
3. Having a Purim se’udah, a festive meal
4. Giving matanot la-evyonim (charitable gifts to those in need)

It is this last one that has a special valence at this moment. Sunday will bring the perfect opportunity to fulfill two mitzvot at once - matanot la-evyonim and the more routine, garden-variety mitzvah of helping somebody in need. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is collecting donations to help people in Japan, and there are certainly many other charities as well. You can find them online, and donation is simple nowadays thanks to the Internet.

This Shabbat Zakhor, we remember not only those who died cruelly and unnecessarily in Israel and Japan, and we also remember that we have the power to change the lives of those struck by tragedy.

On Sunday, find a few dollars to give for the tens of thousands of people who lost their homes, businesses, and family members; thus we may ensure that our celebration does not come at the expense of those who are suffering today.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thursday Morning Kavvanah, 3/17/2011 - What are we?

Reflecting on the equalizing nature of prayer, I lingered momentarily this morning over the series of questions posed in the earliest part of the Shaharit service.

מָה אֲנַחְנוּ מֶה חַיֵּינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּנוּ מַה צִּדְקֵנוּ מַה יְשְׁעֵנוּ מַה כּחֵנוּ מַה גְּבוּרָתֵנוּ.
Mah anahnu, meh hayyeinu, meh hasdenu, mah tzidkenu, mah yish'enu, mah kohenu, mah gevuratenu.
What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment? What is our power? What is our might?

Based on the confessions of R. Yohanan and Mar Shemuel in the Babylonian Talmud (Massekhet Yoma 87b), this litany serves as a reminder to be humble, that each of us is individually insignificant. Today is Ta'anit Esther, the fast that precedes Purim. A wee bit of daily humility can go a long way, and all the more so on a fast day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tuesday Morning Kavvanah, 3/15/2011 - The Limits of Creation

In Psalm 145, recited three times daily as the "Ashrei" prayer, we read the following:

מַלְכוּתְךָ, מַלְכוּת כָּל-עֹלָמִים; וּמֶמְשַׁלְתְּךָ, בְּכָל-דּוֹר וָדֹר.
Malkhutekha malkhut kol olamim, umemshaltekha bekhol dor vador.
Your kingdom is an eternal kingdom, and your rule is for all generations.

Although we as humans are given explicit permission by God (in Bereshit) not only to till and tend Creation, but also to have dominion over it, there are limits. Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from the nuclear meltdown in Japan is that there are limits to what we may explore. God will always have sovereignty over the world, and maybe we should leave the tremendous energy potential of the atomic nucleus untouched; this is the eternal kingdom of God.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Vayiqra 5771 - Israel: the Mundane Made Miraculous

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, 3/12/2011.)

When I was 17, during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I spent two months in Israel on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (HSI) program. To this day, HSI takes high school students all over Israel while they learn Jewish history from Genesis to the present.

That summer, I was transformed - I knew immediately upon returning that I was no longer an ordinary American Jewish teenager from a small town in rural Massachusetts. I had been “turned on” to Israel and all that she offers.

I had hiked through wadis (dry river beds) in the desert, climbed Masada, learned to identify a Herodian stone at 10 paces, marveled at the ancient sites of Jerusalem and crawled the beaches of Tel Aviv, walked the Bahai gardens of Haifa and got lost in the alleyways of Tzfat.

(In retrospect, they gave us a stunning amount of freedom - we were given almost every weekend free to travel about the country in pairs or in groups. Somehow we always came back to our campus in Hod Hasharon, perhaps despite our youth and naivete and raging hormones. In retrospect, I wonder if my parents knew that we had such freedom? I don’t think I spoke with them by phone for the whole 8 weeks that I was in Israel, something which seems almost impossible today.)

But the coursework was demanding - names, dates, places, concepts, peoples, movements, and so forth. It was a college-level course for which credit was offered, and as such there were classes and exams and study sessions and grades. And it was wonderful. I’ll never forget our first tiyyul, to the archaeological excavations at the undeveloped Solomonic city, Tel Gezer, where for thousands of years the upright stone monoliths have stood guard over their idolatrous High Place.

And I’ll never forget my first trip to the Kotel, where the tears welled up instantly, from nowhere, as I reached out to touch the warm, ancient stone.

And I’ll never forget the ½ hour bus ride to downtown Tel Aviv, where pavement-based urban pleasures could be found in abundance for American kids with a few spare shekels.

I learned to judge the quality of falafel, the aroma of spices that complemented the mashed chick peas and the freshness of the salad offerings. I learned to haggle in the shuk. I learned to identify the best Israeli chocolate. I even learned a smattering of spoken Hebrew, despite being around Americans all the time.

And I fell in love with those ancient rocks, the holy city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the place where our ancestors came to offer up their finest of their flocks in service to God.

And I swooned to the spiritual hum of the cemetery in Tzfat where the 16th-century Spanish kabbalists are buried.

And I looked out from the top of what was then the tallest building in the Middle East, the Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv, to see the extent of the greatest Jewish city on Earth.

There are two things that my 8-week academic experience did NOT do for me, two things which our Youth House trip did in fact accomplish in its 10 short days. I’ll come back to that.

There is an astronomical difference between two months in Israel and 10 days. Our group of 39 teens was challenged to pack in a whole lot more in 10 days than is really possible. We covered an impressive range of the things that I’d seen on my first visit in 1987. We woke up early every morning and had long days - so long that the staff was exhausted.

But even though these kids had given up the luxury of sleeping late for a week of winter vacation back home, or in some cases sleeping late on Caribbean vacations with the family, there were rarely complaints about being awoken at 6 AM (or occasionally 5) or being pushed with programming until 10 PM. On the contrary, they learned quickly that every hour was precious, that every time they got onto the bus there was another marvel to behold.

There were for me two particularly holy moments during the course of this trip. One occurred on the southern steps of the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple Mount complex, in the Ophel Archaeological Park that contains some of the most impressive excavations. On that morning, we got out of our hotel early, saw other parts of the park, and davened late; it was already 9 AM when we were wrapping our tefillin on the steps, facing the southern wall and the now-blocked entrance where our ancestors actually ascended to enter the Temple complex while it was still functioning, 2000 years ago. (The steps have been largely reconstructed, but in places you can actually see and walk on the originals.)

We paused right before we sang Psalm 150, the last Psalm of Pesuqei Dezimra (the introductory morning psalms), the last one in the book of Tehillim, the one that identifies all the instruments that were used in service to God when the Temple was functioning. I asked everybody to picture themselves in the shoes of our ancestors, climbing these steps for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the very same sacrifices described in Parashat Vayiqra that we read about today, while the Levitical choir chanted and played the very instruments identified in the Psalm.

הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּתֵקַע שׁוֹפָר; הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּנֵבֶל וְכִנּוֹר.
Halleluhu beteqa shofar, halleluhu benevel vekhinor
Praise God with the blast of the shofar; praise God with the harp and the lute. (Psalm 150:3)

And perhaps for a moment we felt it, because there is nowhere else on earth that you can feel the presence of our history, the lingering buzz of God’s presence, even though the Temple itself has been gone for two millennia, and the Shekhinah, the lowest sefirah of God’s mystical emanations, has long since departed the precincts of the Temple Mount.

That was the first holy moment.

The other one came six long days later and in a place that was effectively two thousand years away. On our second Shabbat afternoon, in the coastal city of Ashkelon, where we were graciously hosted by Israeli families who identify with the Masorti movement (that’s what the rest of the world calls Conservative Judaism), and after lunch we took a short walk to the beach.

We relaxed, we dipped into the Mediterranean waves, we played games, and we watched as our guide Amos collected fragments of ancient Ashkelon that were casually sitting on the beach, and he told us what they were and from which period: a Byzantine plate, a Roman sewer pipe, miscellaneous jug handles, and so forth. It was the moment that brought together ancient and modern, in the context of an actual contemporary community of Jews like us that live in a real Israeli city that is somewhat off the beaten path. It was the nexus of the Israelite past and the Israeli present; the culmination of a week and a half of history in its modern guise. (As an added bonus, some of us even got a tan.)

On the beach, my mind flickered back over the length of the trip, and I recalled the moment on the southern steps of the Beit HaMiqdash. And I remembered the words of the poem called Tourists, by Yehuda Amichai, which we had read together as we wrapped up our tefillin. It’s short, and I’ll recite the whole thing for you right now:

Visits of condolence are all we get from them.
They squat at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Western Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.
"You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head."
"But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
"You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."

That is what Israel does like no other place - it brings together the ancient and modern, and makes the mundane miraculous.

There are two things that we did in Israel two weeks ago that I did not do when I was there 24 years ago:

We prayed as a group, honestly and transformatively. And we lived with actual Israelis, if only for a Shabbat. Those are the things that made this trip a success.

Join us after qiddush and hear from the students themselves what they experienced, because this was their trip, not mine.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wednesday Morning Kavvanah, 3/9/2011 - Directing Your Heart

What is kavvanah, anyway? Why do we need it?

Tefillah is hard to do right. It is difficult when you do not know the language or the melodies, but it is even more difficult, arguably, when you know it so well that it becomes rote. So we all need a focal point, something that helps us make the tefillah meaningful and valuable. Kavvanah, literally "intention" or "direction," can be that focal point.

Here is something from the Mishnah, perhaps the first mention of the concept of kavvanah:

היה רוכב על החמור, יירד; אם אינו יכול לירד, יחזיר את פניו. אם אינו יכול להחזיר את פניו, יכוון את ליבו כנגד בית קודש הקודשים.

If one is riding on a donkey [and the time comes to recite the Amidah], he should get down off the donkey. If one cannot do so, he should turn his face [toward Jerusalem]. If one cannot do this, then he should direct his heart toward the Holy of Holies [of the Temple in Jerusalem]. (Berakhot 4:5)

In some sense, we are all so distracted that we are figuratively riding on donkeys. And even though we might be praying while actually facing Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies, the direction of one's heart is even more important. Kavvanah is the way to direct your heart.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tuesday Morning Kavvanah, 3/8/2011 - Ancient Resonance

Let's face it: to those who have not spent their lives immersed in the intricacies of Jewish text, tefillah and Jewish ritual can seem impenetrable, and somewhat hard to relate to for modern people. Why wake up early every morning to recite a litany of mostly-meaningless syllables in a foreign language? Why bind inscribed pieces of parchment to our heads and arms with leather straps? Why drape oneself in a rectangular garment with knots hanging off the corners?

If we do not feel the compulsion of commandedness (which is very hard for most of us to feel these days), these rituals may fall flat. But when I put on tefillin and tallit in the morning, when I recite the ancient words of Jewish liturgy, I feel the resonance of all the generations that came before me, generations of people who, I hope, felt closer to God than I ever will. And my ancestors used the same words of tefillah, liturgy that has been handed down to us today. Who are we to be indifferent to its power?

This historical resonance enables me to engage meaningfully with Jewish tradition.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tuesday Morning Kavvanah, 3/1/2011 - The Best Moment in Israel

Before shaharit (the morning service) today, Marty asked me if I could identify the absolute highlight of the trip. After thinking about this throughout the tefillot, I decided that the high point for me was probably different from that of the teenage participants. They might pick the walk through Hezekiah's Tunnel or the climbing of Masada to see the sunrise over the mountains of Moab or the night in the Bedouin tent or the Dead Sea or maybe praying at the Kotel for the first time.

But I would pick the Shabbat we spent in Ashkelon at a Masorti/Conservative congregation, hosted by Israeli families with teenage peers of our participants. And all the more so because this was at the end of our trip, after we had experienced the history of Israel through ancient, medieval and modern lenses. The final stage, as it were, was to spend time with actual Israelis, in their homes, as a part of their contemporary existence. Because Israel is not just history, it is also modern, thriving, complicated society, an essential part of Jewish civilization, and (following Dr. Kenneth Stein) the last major development of Judaism. Most tourist experience the sites listed above; few spend time off the beaten path in Israeli living rooms. This is invaluable.

Wednesday Morning Kavvanah, 3/2/2011 - Supplication Waltz

Although many Conservative congregations in the 20th century eliminated the custom of reciting "tahanun," the daily supplication that is found in the Shaharit/morning service immediately following the Amidah, we recite it at Temple Israel. And I must confess that it is one of the holier moments for me in daily tefillot.

This is a prayer of entreaty, in which we quietly, almost internally, confess our failures before God, and ask for mercy. We physically imitate the posture of supplication by performing "nefilat apayim," falling on our faces, by burying our heads in the crook of our weak arm (or the other one if wearing tefillin). It is a deeply personal moment, one in which we set aside our pride, when we plead helplessness.

A dose of humility at dawn always puts a positive spin on the day.

Final Israel Trip Update

By now, everybody is home and exhausted, but no doubt still reeling from our packed 10-day jaunt.

The dramatic finish to our trip began with Friday's visit to the museum of illegal immigration to Israel during the British mandate period in Atlit, just south of Haifa. After driving down the coast to Ashkelon, we had a fabulous Israeli-style lunch at a wonderful grill restaurant called HaGehalim ("the coals"). We met our host families and split up for a few hours to prepare for Shabbat.

As the sun set, we welcomed the Shabbat Queen for the second time in Israel with the Masorti (the international name for what North Americans call Conservative) congregation in Ashkelon, Kehillat Netzach Yisrael. This is the synagogue where (our Religious Activities Director) Itamar's father had been the rabbi for many years. They were very happy to host us, and we all had a huge Shabbat dinner together at the synagogue, after which we sang boisterous Shabbat songs with the help of the local chapter of the Noam youth group (the Israeli equivalent of USY). We went home to our host families simply buzzing with the excitement of Shabbat evening, and slept well.

Shabbat morning we davened again with the Netzach Yisrael community, and then enjoyed a program facilitated by Itamar's older brother Alon, a current resident of Ashkelon, about our different impressions of Israel. After lunch we took a walk to the beach, and enjoyed the sun and the sand, and a few of us even got a little wet; Amos found for us a selection of Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader stone fragments on the beach. When we returned, the Noam group ran another program for us, and we concluded Shabbat with havdalah under the stars, holding hands and singing together as we reflected on the long roster of experiences of the last 10 days.

In my mind, the Shabbat in Ashkelon brought all of our experiences together. After following the steps of our ancestors in Jerusalem, tracing a path through Jewish history in the medieval period and the roots of the modern State of Israel, visiting the homes of and socializing with actual Israeli peers brought together the past and the present in a way that only Israel can do. As Moji remarked to me at one point, we had to start in Jerusalem and end up in Ashkelon, because that is the only way it makes sense. As the modern Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai captured so well in his poem, Tourists (Tayyarim), which we read on the steps leading up to the southern entrance to the Second Temple, Israel is not just a pile of ancient rocks; the real story is just as much the people who live there today.

While we waited for our pizza delivery Saturday night, each and every one of us had the opportunity to talk about our experiences, and the results were wonderful. It was quite apparent to the staff, and perhaps to the participants as well, how much all of our teens had grown in a mere 10 days by addressing issues of Jewish history and identity, by experiencing the Jewish state and exploring their relationship to it, and by immersing ourselves in the prayerful moments of Jewish life in the land of our ancient forebears and modern cousins. And, of course there was the social component - we all made new friends, learned to share and participate in the group, and gained new perspectives on respect. And then there was the ice cream...

Also, I hope to organize a couple of things in the upcoming weeks: (1) another group aliyah on Shabbat morning at Temple Israel, when we can all recite the "gomel" prayer for returning safely from a long journey; (2) an opportunity for trip participants to share their experiences with other Youth House kids; and (3) a trip reunion party. Keep an eye out for these.

One final note: many of the teens donated money that had been given to them as tzedakah to individuals, but we also took up a group collection on the bus. We collected a total of $326.70 (after all the shekels had been converted back to dollars), which we voted as a group to donate to Alyn Pediatric Rehabilitation hospital ( in Jerusalem. As a special request, a fraction of the money will also be given to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces ( Kol HaKavod!

Thanks again to the Khorshid Dina Harounian Israel Education Fund and our other donors who made this trip unforgettable.

Let me once again thank you for the opportunity to give your teens an Israel experience that they will never forget.