Friday, March 18, 2011

Special Holiday Blog: Seeing past the mask of Purim

This coming week is the holiday of Purim, a day that commemorates one of the greatest miracles to ever happen to the Jewish people. The story is set in Persian town of Shushan where King Ahauserus (having disposed of his first wife for not doing what he wanted her to do) holds a contest to find a new wife to be queen. Hadasah, a beautiful Jewish girl in Shushan, hides her Jewish identity, takes on the name Esther, and wins the contest. Meanwhile, King Ahauserus' wicked vizier, Haman, forces everyone in the city to bow down to him, a request to which everyone fearfully obliges except for one Jewish man- Mordecai, Esther's uncle. As a result of Mordecai's stubbornness, Haman goes into a rage and convinces the king to sign a decree to annihilate all the Jews. Once Esther and Mordecai find out about this, they realize that Esther, being the wife of the King, is the Jewish people's only hope at averting the harsh decree. She makes the brave decision of entering into the King's chamber unannounced, an act that could result in her execution, and requests for there to be a banquet where both Esther and Haman would be. At the banquet, Esther reveals herself to be a Jew, which would mean that she'd be included in Haman's deadly decree against the Jews. Ahauserus has Haman and his ten scheming sons hung and appoints Mordecai as new Prime Minister to the King. Notice how G-d never shows up in the story in a revealed sense; in fact, G-d's name is never even mentioned once in the entire Book of Esther! For one of the biggest miracles to happen to the Jewish people, G-d's seeming absence is a bit odd, yet from this one detail we can learn a deep life lesson.

When Esther entered into the King's chamber, she was risking everything to save the Jews, including her own life. It is known that Esther had ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration), an intuition that helped her in becoming Queen and figuring out what she had to do, yet when she entered into the King's chamber, that ruach hakodesh left her, leaving her with out any idea as to the outcome of this fateful meeting. This sense of hiddeness, of being left alone, is a theme that rings throughout the entire story of Purim: Esther hiding her identity, G-d's name never being mentioned once, the true nature of Haman's plot being hidden from King Ahauserus, they all come together to convey a very important message. Many times in our lives, things happen for seemingly no reason at all; tragedy strikes and it's very easy to start playing the blame game. We wonder why G-d would ever allow such things to happen, why He would let his creations suffer, yet as difficult as it may be to take a step back, we must be able to do so in order to see the hiddeness for what it really is- G-d hiding Himself. So what should we do when things aren't going the way we planned? We try to find the meaning in our suffering and in doing so, we find G-d.
Life may appear random, yet that only applies to our limited perspective. With the unlimited perspective of eternity, the pattern come to the surface. When Esther went to Mordecai before entering the King's chamber, Mordecai told her "Who knows? Perhaps for this moment were you made Queen?" Esther realized that she was part of a much bigger plan; instead of shaking her fist at the sky and abandoning hope and trust in G-d's saving power, she perceived her own power in this situation, the power that G-d had given her, to take action and save the day. Just as Esther was able to see past her limited understanding, so too must we do the same. When the heat is turned up to broil, we must realize that these trials are just that: trials for us to overcome. We see past the hiddeness and realize that even in our darkest moments, G-d is both there and with us in full revelation.
It is this level of bitachon, of trust in G-d that allows us to be truly b'simcha, happy. Just think about it: if all of our trials are really just opportunities for us to overcome our subjective suffering and to get closer to G-d, then on a certain objective level, there is no struggle! If everything is from G-d, then everything, no matter how difficult it may be for us to see it, is ultimately for the good. We may look around at this world and see immense darkness, yet that darkness is completely from our perspective. To give a parable, imagine a father and the love he has for his son. There are two ways that the father can express this love: he can express it directly through signs of affection such as hugs, kisses, presents, etc. or he can express it indirectly through discipline. The difference is this: when it comes to signs of affection, it's very easy to see from the child's point of view that the father loves the child, yet when the father has to use discipline, the child can often get upset, confused, cry, and be incapable of seeing the good in it. Yet we all know that the mark of a good father is whether or not he can bring himself to discipline his child. Why? Because although it may be difficult to see his child's suffering, he knows that his child will learn a valuable lesson from it, lessons that will strengthen him and shape him into being a better person.
The line between hiddeness and revelation and between happiness and sadness is very fine, almost imperceptible, but it is this line precisely that forces you to care. If we never experiences the deepest depths of sorrow then we would be incapable of appreciating the true beauty of the most elevated heights of joy. There's an old Jewish saying: "simcha poretz geder" joy breaks through all boundaries. If we can maintain a level of faith and trust, then through being joyful, we will be able to break through the boundaries of hiddeness and reveal the infinite light inherent in the darkness. G-d wears a mask, it's up to us to reach out and take it off.
Have a meaningful Purim,

Friday, February 4, 2011

Torah blog of the week: Partners in Creation

Shalom everyone, sorry for the lack of blogs lately, things have been pretty busy (thank G-d) at the yeshiva. This week is parshas Terumah, the parsha which explains how the Jewish people were to build the mishkon, a sanctuary for G-d, in the desert. At the beginning of the parsha, there is a verse which sets the tone for our entire service to Hashem: "They should make a Sanctuary to Me and I will dwell among them." What makes this verse interesting is the use of the plural "dwell among them"; this is meant to indicate that Hashem would dwell in each and every Jew in the desert. What exactly does this mean?

The Mishkon is where the ark of the covenant was to be held; it says in the Torah that Hashem would speak from on top of the ark, indicating that an intense revelation of G-dliness would take place there; in a sense, it was the place where G-d was dwelling. According to the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok, by saying "They should make a Sanctuary to Me" means that we should symbolically make ourselves into a Sanctuary. The idea of Hashem dwelling in the Mishkon carries over into our own self-building, meaning that if we do what it takes to make our bodies into a Sanctuary, then Hashem will dwell within us.

So what exactly does it take to turn our bodies into a Sanctuary? We can find out from looking at how the Mishkon was built. The Mishkon was made out of physical materials (wood, copper, earth, etc.) For something so incredibly spiritual, one would thing that physicality would run contrary to that. However, the idea was this: the greatness of G-d is not bound to the upper realms, to some distant, abstract cloud perched above our mundane, physical plane of reality. G-d dwells within all of physical creation, permeating existence, yet He is hidden by the coarseness of this physicality. This is not, G-d forbid, to say that we should worship nature; this would constitute idolatry, which runs exactly opposite to what G-d wants. By going contrary to what our eyes perceive and seeking to find the G-dliness inherent inside everything, we are recognize the true greatness of G-d, that His greatness is found in His humility i.e. His ability to come to our low level. Therefore, we see that by using the physical materials to build the Mishkon, we were making a statement. We don't see G-d as being distant and lofty, we also don't see nature as a end unto itself, rather, we see the physical as a means unto an end, the end being to elevate this reality up to the union of spiritual and physical, to the realm of holiness.

Now we can see how this parallels in our Divine service. We must use our physical "materials" (i.e. using our physical impulses and desires) to build our Sanctuary. We have to recognize that our body is not really ours, it's on loan from Hashem. We only have a certain amount of time here on this Earth and to navigate through this life, G-d gave us the ultimate power: the power of choice. We can choose to dwell in physicality as if it's the end all be all of life, we can go to parties where habitual drinking and intimacy takes on the nature of desperation, we can listen to our more animalistic side and indulge in fleeting instant gratification, or we could turn them over into good by just saying "no". Everything decays; fancy BMW's rust away, food rots, even we go back to the dust, yet truth is eternal. By attaching ourselves to this truth and deciding to live our lives according to G-d's universal message for the world, the Torah, we transform our limited physical existence into an eternal edifice. When we do this, them Hashem will dwell in each and every one of us, dwelling in this world as it's supposed to be. May the day when we finally see G-dliness with our own fleshly eyes come immediately, bringing with it the eternal Sanctuary for the world.
With all my love,
(Based on the teachings of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Torah blog of the week: Where Heaven and Earth Embraced

In this week's parsha, parshas Yisro, we recount the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event that forever changed the spiritual landscape of reality. It was and only time in history that G-d had physically revealed himself to humanity (this is not to say that G-d has a physical form, G-d forbid), but the level of G-dly revelation that took place at the foot of that mountain was so strong, that it was said that the souls of all the Jewish people left there bodies in spiritual expiration. One of the biggest innovations that took place after Mount Sinai was the introduction of mitzvahs as we know it.

, usually translated as 'commandment', is actually best translated as 'connection'; by giving over the Torah at Mount Sinai, G-d was introducing a new form of G-dly connection into the world, a way in which we could cleave to Hashem literally. Mitzvahs had existed before yet in a much different form; the Patriarchs (Avraham, Yitzchok, and Ya'akov) had actually intuited and intellectually come to a recognition of some form of mitzvahs, yet the mitzvahs that they performed had a much different effect on reality. Their performance of mitzvahs drew G-dliness into the spiritual realms, as well as into themselves for them to spread to other people. By transforming themselves into a vessel for G-dliness, they were compared to a chariot, the reason being that a chariot has no will of its own other than that of it's driver. The mitzvah given with the Torah was of a much different nature; instead of drawing G-dliness only into the spiritual realms and into oneself, they were now able to infuse holiness into physicality and to elevate the material. This is a significant change in reality, a change conveyed by the first words spoken by G-d to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai: "Anochi Hashem Elokecha" (I, the L-rd, am your G-d)

These three words in Hebrew are all considered different names of G-d, which in Torah correspond to different revelations of G-dliness. The word 'Anochi' corresponds to G-d as He is unto himself, his very Essence, I. This name of G-d was the one that played the biggest role in the giving of the mitzvahs; however, in order to understand why this is so, we must first analyse the last two names mentioned: Hashem & Elokim (the non-possessive form of the Name)

Elokim corresponds to the G-dly power invested within created beings. Within every created being is enclothed a different aspect of G-dly energy, one which is expressed according to the particular nature of that being i.e. within nature, intellect, set boundaries, etc. That means that any sort of G-dly power that we see within the trees, grass, oceans, sun, animals, humans, and even supernatural beings such as angels are governed by Elokim. There have always been many religious groups throughout history that have attributed power to the sun, moon, and stars; the Nile river, Mt. Olympus, yet these groups were merely looking at a part of G-d, the hands covering the face of a G-d who is hidden from us.

Then there is Hashem, the dimension of G-dliness which transcends nature, combining past, present, and future all into one perspective. This level is unbound by the laws of nature and of intellectual grasp. As Pharaoh had said "Who is Hashem that I should listen to Him?...I do not know this Hashem!" The reason why Pharaoh could not understand this idea of Hashem is because the religion he was accustomed to was one where different gods and goddesses governed over all of nature i.e. this one was in charge of fertility, this one agriculture, this one the sun, etc. His deities were also very mortal, they could be born, killed, reborn, etc. Hashem, on the other hand, transcended all of that; He was (and is) timeless, spaceless reality. These two names, however, do not refer to G-d's Essence, only to revelations. If something is on the level of essence, then by its own nature it cannot be revealed. This brings us to the name Anochi, where the mitzvahs came from.

There's a funny thing about Anochi: it's written in Egyptian! You would think that the Essence of G-d would be written in Hebrew, lushon hakodesh (holy tongue), the language that the Torah was written in. Instead, it was written in a language which the Jewish Sages considered to be the language that expressed the lowest level of spiritual refinement! How much more so now is the question deepened, the question of why G-d chose to express Him as He is unto Himself through the coarsest, most unrefined language. With a little bit of abstract (and a lot of help from the Lubavitcher Rebbe as well) we can have a clear understanding as to why this is. The whole point of mitzvahs is to interact with the physical world, and infuse it with holiness, thus elevating it up to the level of G-dliness. Mitzvahs show us how Torah permeates every aspect of our lives: when we eat, we can only eat certain animals slaughtered in a certain way; we wrap tefillin that is made out of leather, parchment, and ink; we wear fringed garments made out of string. This all comes to show us that mitzvahs are done with physical things, physicality being the opposite of spiritual. What this shows us about the name Anochi is that by expressing His Essence at Mount Sinai through the most spiritually unrefined language, G-d was (essentially) giving the world His mission statement: where you find me most is in refining the unrefined. You won't find Me by worshipping the Sun, you won't find Me by going to the top of a mountain and meditating for twelve hours, but you'll find Me in giving charity, in lighting Shabbos candles, in eating matzah on Passover, in elevating the physical to the level of G-dly.

The word Anochi can be understood through Chassidic teachings as an acronym for an Aramaic phrase meaning: "I wrote down and gave over Myself", meaning that G-d literally gave Himself over to the world. It also says it Proverbs to "Know HIm in all your ways." If we can understand G-d through nature and our intellect (Elokim), if we can transcend ourselves and our subjective understanding of the world (Hashem), and if we can take this physical world around us and spread the light of Torah and Mitzvahs (Anochi), then it will be as if we had recieved the Torah today.
With all of my Love,
(Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Torah Blog: Calling out to Hashem

Imagine the end of everything, everything that you had fought for, dreamed for, worked for. Imagine yourself hungry, beaten, starved, at your lowest point facing a sea seemingly full of despair. "This is it," you think. "here is where I lose it all." Your only hope would be to fall onto the last resort of the many that had come before you: pray for deliverance. Now imagine this scenario, yet this time, you know that this is not the end, it can't be the end because someone promised you sometime long ago in a near-forgotten past that it wouldn't be. Not only would it not be the end, but you would get to where you were traveling to; you'd reach the place where everything you lived for, a holistic truth woven into every fiber of your soul, would be realized. Why would you need to pray for your deliverance? You'd know that this unbreakable promise would override your situation; an objective truth overcoming a subjective doubt. Would you pray at all? This story, though it may sound familiar to us all, is one of timeless nature, applying to every person's life at east once in their time here on Earth. For the Jews at the Reed Sea, that was such a time.

B'nei Yisrael had found itself at the very brink of collapse: After a civilization-shattering series of ten plagues, Moshe, the messenger of Hashem, had led them out of Egypt towards the promised land. The seemingly impossible was coming to fruition before their very eyes; the thing spoken of in fables, nighttime stories passed onto a child trembling with fear of death, legends passed down from father to son, yet never really thought of that seriously- unfolding before them in a plain undeniable truth. Now, though, they were face-to-face with the final obstacle before redemption: the Reed Sea, the one thing separating them from death and life, an expanse of water menacingly staring them down with the freezing shock of realization. Yet Hashem had promised that they would find redemption and ultimately realize their potential, so how could this be the end? It says that they prayed, yet here is where the question is posed: why? It certainly seems that if they were promised redemption, then they wouldn't be praying for that. If that had lost faith and trust in Hashem, thinking that he had abandoned His promise to them, then why would they pray at all?

Rashi brings a very fascinating commentary on that: he says that in calling out to Hashem, they were grabbing onto the trade of their fathers, the prayers of Avraham, Yitzchok, and Ya'akov. To give examples of their trade, Rashi brings three verses: for Avraham "to place where he stood", standing meaning prayer; for Yitzchok "he went to go speak in the field", and for Ya'akov "he reached the place", meaning that he prayed. Yet these three examples don't seem all that obvious in the language that they were praying, the word prayer doesn't even show up! What makes this even stranger is that there are other verses that explicitly speak of the fathers praying to Hashem: for Avraham "he built an alter and called out (prayed) to Hashem", for Yitzchok it says that he prayed to Hashem when his wife, Rebecca, was barren, and for Ya'akov he prayed that Hashem would deliver him from his brother Eisav (please save me from my brother, Eisav), so why not bring those verses as proof? Does this not seem a more obvious set of examples? The Lubavitcher Rebbe brings an amazing answer to this question. In the three obvious verses, the fathers were praying for something, yet in regards to the three verses actually given by Rashi, they were just praying to praise Hashem, they were praying just for the sake of praying. Now we can see why B'nei Yisrael, when faced down by the Egyptians at the Reed Sea, prayed: they prayed because that's who they were. It didn't matter if things were going well for them; in fact, they were facing annihilation. They prayed because it naturally came from the depths of their soul.

This is an amazing idea that we can use in our life and in our service to Hashem. G-d, contrary to popular belief, is not a giant ATM machine in the sky; praying to Him will not always ensure that you'll win the lotto (sorry). We don't serve Hashem because it feels good or because we're looking to get something out of it; we find, in fact, that dedicating one's life to Hashem is one of the most conflicted, difficult, and seemingly irrational things to do in this world. The reason why we're serving Hashem is because it's the only thing that we can do, it's what we were created for, because He is the only real and true thing in this world. It's easy for us to get lost in the world within which we live. We're constantly using our subjective interpretation of life as an "objective" reality. A person's ego can block them from what is objectively true. Often times, the most important thing will be my thoughts, my feelings, my beliefs, my best interest, Me, Myself, & I. If we can work on transcending ourselves and see the truth that's right in front of our eyes, if we can clear out the subjective emotional baggage and make room for Hashem, if we can learn to truly care for another person without any self-seeking or self-interested motivations involved, if we can experience a selfless love, then we will be redeemed. When B'nei Yisrael was stuck between the Egyptians threatening to kill them and the Reed Sea, they had nothing left except for their eternal promise and an unbreakable connection to Hashem; it was because of this that they prayed. True, they complained to Moshe, yet they didn't shake their fists at the sky, spite the name of G-d, and cast of His existence as a mere fantasy. Their belief and trust in Hashem wasn't based on situation, on limited human reasoning, on subjective emotions such as joy or suffering, it was based on a deep undeniable bond that they as Jews could not deny.

The Kotsker Rebbe once said that G-d is where ever you let Him in; perhaps if we could accomplish this avodah, this spiritual service of serving Hashem selflessly, of engaging in a relationship with G-d on His terms as opposed to ours, of making room for Him in our lives, then perhaps the Reed Sea in our lives that we all face will make room for us, allowing us to walk through towards our redemption. May we all experience the ultimate redemption of us all with the coming of Moshiach, may it happen speedily in our days.
With all my love,

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Late night reflections

I've found that the best times for things such as writing or tapping into a creative flow have come late at night. I don't know what it is, perhaps it's the fact that after a long day, your brain is tired and open to reveal anything. Maybe there's something different about the nature of the atmosphere or how the Earth interacts with the Moon. Eitherway, when it's late at night and you have a song that you can't get enough set on repeat in your itunes, it's fairly easy to write freely and openly about anything. I'm sitting here in my room, my laptop camped out on my desk in front of all my Judaica books; books on bitachon (trust in G-d), prayer, a Chumash (Five books of Moses), my worn out siddur, a copy of "Lessons in Tanya"- all works that I've accumulated overtime, collections of concepts and teachings that I've come to identify myself with and by over the past year and a half. It's a time like now (1:41 in the morning Eastern-standard time to be precise) that these things come to pass before my mind, yet if I were to say that these were only resigned to late-night ponderings I would be doing a disservice to these past five weeks.

This coming Sunday I will, G-d willing, be flying out of JFK airport to head back to Israel for another six months. The first six months was a time filled with learning, living, growing, self-discovery & improvement, traveling- all things that any good cinematic "spiritual journey" would be inadequate without. One incredible lesson I've learned in my "spiritual journey" is that the idea of there being a "spiritual journey" is slightly ridiculous, a result of the seperation between the physical and spiritual, ordinary and supernatural, as opposed to the seamless narrative of holistic life. So you mean to tell me that anything in your life that isn't part of the "spiritual journey" is just, well....not spiritual? The mere concept of a "spiritual journey" taking place in our lives is almost, in a sense, self-indulgant. Our entire lives we are on the journey, so why don't we just call it for what it is: life?

People spend so much time trying to live their life as if they're living out of a suitcase, like you've caught them smack dab in the middle of the road. Just live life! No need to romanticize it or compare it against your favorite indie movie like "Garden State" or "Eternal Sunshine". It's like the person who goes on a vacation yet experienced the entire trip through the view of a camera. Did they really see the sunsets over the Himalayas? The brilliantly colored tapestries of tropical flowers in Hawaii? Did they take part in the mid-day cafe conversation or were they merely taking mental notes on it so that their future self could have a custom-made bank of memories to pull from on a depressing night spent alone? Who am I to talk though, I do this all the time, I still recognize the existence of the "spiritual journey" in my life, but why? Eh, just some late night ramblings I suppose. Or not.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The pangs of redemption: finding meaning in suffering

I had the pleasure of spending this past Shabbos in Crown Heights, a community in Brooklyn that is central to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. There you can find anything and everything Jewish; there's various yeshivas and seminaries, synagogues, including the main 770 shul; Judaica stores, kosher restaurants- a little bastion of Jewish life in America. This Shabbos was an immense source of strength for me, providing me with the inspiration and tools needed to get through these next two weeks, but why do I need strength? What is it that is troubling me so much that I need a Shabbos in Crown Heights in order to get over it? I've spoken about it before many times, so the term "golus" shouldn't be a foreign word to you. It's the major source of our confusion when it comes to faith, the source of our anxieties, fears, and doubts; an itch that you can never quite scratch and so it drives you mad with desperation. What's the best analogy to explain Golus? I found myself sitting in Hadar HaTorah friday night, the first Ba'al Teshuvah yeshiva in Lubavitch, speaking with a complete stranger about his journey. I began to share with him my journey, trying to explain my recent struggle. I said to him "golus is's like..." when the lights in the room went out. I heard a familar voice behind me, my friend from yeshiva, Daniel Bortz, say to me "that's what golus is like." He was right, what a perfect analogy: it's like the lights going out and the room being cast into darkenss. We see in this week's parsha one of the ultimate blackouts for the Jewish people- their enslavement in Egypt.

We all know the story: The Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years until G-d sent Moshe, the people's redeemer and shepherd, the take them out. The pivitol moment in Moshe's life was when he encountered the burning bush, a revelation of G-d that informed him of his need to return to Egypt. When Moshe asks G-d "when I come to the children of Israel and I say to them, 'the G-d of your fathers sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'what is His Name?' what shall I say to them?", G-d responds "Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I am that I am)". When we think about the question that Moshe was asking, it seems a bit odd: according to his question, Moshe had already said who it was that sent him, "the G-d of your fathers". Why did he need to ask what G-d's Name was if he already knew? To illucidate this, let's take Rashi's commentary on G-d's response; according to Rashi, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh" doesn't refer to a name of G-d at all, but a statement: "I will be with them in their present time of need, just as I will be with them at the time of future persecution". The key here is consistency, that I am here for you now just as I will be in the future. Even if we take "Ehyeh asher ehyeh" as a Name of G-d, there is something to learn. It is known that a name of G-d actually refers to a Divine attribute; one name corresponds to judgement, another to mercy, etc. In light of all this information, we can now understand Moshe's question: "what will I tell the Jewish people when they ask me what Name i.e. what attribute of G-d, is this that would let us suffer in Egypt for so long? The answer: I am with you now just as I have always been. This applies to us as well, while we are in golus, G-d is with us just as consistently. However, while this is all well and good, one cannot help but wonder why, if G-d is always with us, does He allows us to suffer?

An answer can be found in G-d's response. After He says "Ehyeh asher ehyeh", G-d then tells Moshe that "Havyah (a Name of G-d)...has sent me to you. This is My eternal Name," The Divine Name Havyah, a Name connotating Mercy, is spelled with a yud, a hei, a vov, and a hei. l'olam, the hebrew word for 'eternal', is usually spelled with a vov, and yet in this passage the vov is missing. What we can learn from this is that G-d's Mercy, while being there, is hidden from us during the exile. Sometimes, a person can feel isolated, lost on the empty gray road of life, alone in a room void of light. We get upset at G-d, blaming Him for all of the misfortune to befall us, only to forget Him when times get better.

This is also another reason for G-d's response of "Ehyeh asher ehyeh": "I am what I am, I am not ashamed to be who I am, so please accept me for that even if you might not understand all of my motivations. I'm consistent; I love you and I never change, so although you may percieve your situation as meaningless suffering, please understand that I am there, in that moment of melancholy, that stinging bitter pain that threatens to cripple your heart. I want you to let Me, Me in all that I am, into your life to give your perspective and to heal. I want you to step outside of the four walls of your own situation, go beyond yourself and find the inner meaning within your pain, transcend your suffering and see it from a higher perspective. The bad times that you are experiencing may just be the birth pangs of something incredibly good. This is what we are supposed to do in golus. We are having a conversation; when the lights go out in the room, we need to trust that Hashem is still there listening. All we need to do is continue speaking our hearts and trust that He will respond. Have a liberating week.
With all my love,

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Torah blog of the week: Exile and strength

Lately, I've had a dilemma. It's not neccesarily something that I expected, yet at the same time, many people kept reminding me that it would happen. I fought it, I prepared for it, but lately it's been getting the better of me. This dilemma isn't universal thought of, at least not in the sense of it being at the forefront of everyone's mind. Not many people understand it, I can't say that I completely understand it myself even though I know that it's there. It often remains unspoken, sometimes deliberately so, remaining as the large pink elephant in the room, quietly brushing its tail and shuffling its massive feet while we try to avoid it. Sometimes we recognize its presence in the form of a brief existential moment, a "wool removed from the eyes" sort of feeling that we get at the most random times, only to lapse back into a lucid dream. It's called golus- exile- and whether we know it or not, it affects us constantly. It's the state of the world where G-dliness isn't openly revealed, where the knowledge of G-d is put into question, and even the most evident truths are doubted. In place of this massive hole, a "reality" of empty materialism and meaningless hedonism is constructed; a world where instant gratification holds sway over our emotions and the animal in us remains supreme. If only we could break out from our self-constructed prisons, cure ourselves of this perpetual Stockholm syndrome, take some advice from the sages and realize that we are as dreamers, then perhaps, with a little glimpse of light like the sun breaking through the horizon, the elephant would disappear and we could all breath a little easier.

Why do I say that it's my dilemma? If this is something that afflicts the global community, then why do I single myself out? Because a little over a week ago, I left my yeshiva on David Yellin Street in Jerusalem, my cacoon of Torah learning, to head back to the States for a month-long visit. While this may not seem like that long of a time and while I'm incredibly happy to be with my family and friends, it's been giving me a taste of what the "real world" is and what to expect from it. I had mentally prepared myself to have difficulty with my focus and my Torah learning, with the flow of inspiration, yet it wasn't until living it that I was able to realize a hard-to-swallow truth: it will always be this way to a certain extent. We cannot pretend like the "real world" doesn't exist and hide away in our books, tucked away in the little corner of the room. We have our familes, relationships, jobs, politics, hardships, life. Life isn't about being in the bubble, it's about recognizing that the bubbles exist- both the bubble of yeshiva and the bubble of the real world- and being able to interact in them while not being tied down by them. It's about gathering strength so that we can take care of the task at hand, These past two parshas have really spoken to me intimately on this topic and, hopefully, it will speak to you as well.

In last week's parsha, Joseph was reunited with his father, Jacob. This was especially evident in my life since I was reunited with parents after a six month leave from home. In this week's parsha, the theme seems to be all about one thing: strengthening ourselves for the golus. One example of this is in the blessing that Jacob bestows upon Joseph's sons, Menashe and Ephraim. In a few parshas back, the Torah commented on why Joseph decided on those two names: Menashe was because "G-d has caused me to forget (NaSHaNi) all my hardships and all that was in my father's house." (Gen. 41:51) while Ephraim was because "G-d has made me fruitful (hiFRani) in the land of my subjugation." (ibid. 52) Menashe's name refers to Joseph's longing to leave Egypt (exile) and return to his "father's house" (liberation) while Ephraim's name refers to our mission in exile that we need to carry out (made me fruitful). Although Menashe is the first born and should have been blessed first, Jacob decided to bless Ephraim first instead. What we learn from this is two things: firstly the fact that Menashe is the first born means that we must feel out of place in the exile; we need to recognize that while we may have a whole life set up here, there is still the absence of G-d's revelation in this world, which means that the world has yet to reach its perfected state; and secondly, the fact that Ephraim was the first to be blessed means that our primary focus must be on fulfilling our mission and suceeding in our Divine service.

What exactly is our mission? It's hinted to in the end of the parsha and the end of Genesis, the first book of the Torah. On Shabbos when we read the Torah out loud, when we finish a book in the Torah it is customary to say "Chazak! Chazak! V'nischazek!" (Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!) At the end of Genesis, Joseph passes away and is interned in Egypt, so why, if the book ends on such a depressing note, would we celebrate by saying "chazak"? There are two reasons for this, one obvious and one less obvious. The first is that this is the last parsha before the book of Exodus, the retelling of the Jews enslavement in Egypt. By saying "chazak" we are strengthening ourselves for the exile ahead, reminding ourselves of the promise of liberation. The second and less obvious idea deals with the life of Joseph. While Joseph was alive he rose to great power, becoming second in command to Pharoah. By his body remaing in Egypt, it is symbolic of Joseph's greatness remaining with the Jewish people and ultimately, of our mastery over the golus.

So what does this tell us about our mission? That we must strengthen our convictions and be able to not just survive in the golus, but to thrive. Joseph didn't just live his life in Egypt, he amassed immense wealth and eventually came to rule it. So too with us: we must be able to draw the spiritual wealth out from the golus, to realize the endless amount of light hidden in the illusory darkness. For weeks I've tried to write words in this blog that would strengthen my friends, people that a different points in time were outside of the yeshiva within themselves, outside of their personal Jerusalem. Now that I find myself in a similar situation, in a place where I'm in need of strengthening, I've realized the importance of this week's lesson. It takes a bit of bitachon (trust in G-d) to believe that we're always here for a reason no matter where we are. Though we may feel out of place and lacking in the fulfillment of our duties, it's important to realize that we are here for a reason, whether it be one seemingly random good deed, a person that is in need of a single charitable act, or the worried heart of a friend that requires easing. If we can come to the realization that we are constantly reconstructing our purpose and meaning in life, then the dilemma will disappear; the exile both within the world and within ourselves will be no more than a memory fading away into abstraction, a dream lost in a vacuous haze. Here's to finding our purpose in the exile and to a speedy redemption from it.
With all my love,