Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Living on the edge . . .

(Humpty Dumpty, on the Edge)

Last month, Naomi and I moved to a wonderful home about one and a half miles away from shul.  Reactions have been mainly positive, if only for the reason it signified we were not likely to move in the immediate future. Rabbinic searches are stressful, and the community isn't particularly in the mood to hire a new Rabbi (at least I certainly hope not!).

Still, it's fairly obvious that some are a bit mystified by the seemingly infinite distance between our home and the shul.  It's not uncommon to be asked questions like, "[d]oes the eruv really extend all the way up here?" (yes, and even a little bit further!) and to here murmurs of "[m]aybe they just wanted some space."  First, despite popular notions to the contrary, Einstein's theory of relativity was discovered generally in Rhode Island long before he was born.  You see, since our state is so surprisingly small, the relativity of space and time takes on a special meaning here.  On a good day, it takes only 45 minutes to enter Rhode Island at the southern border and leave Rhode Island for the Commonwealth to our north; this small size frequently causes foreigners to forget our status as a state altogether, or to confuse Greater R.I. with Long Island, a small exotic location off the southern coast of Connecticut.  Locally, commuting more than ten or fifteen minutes is considered "long", and I've even caught myself saying things like "I'm going all the way to Warwick (15 minutes away) today."  All this to say that one mile in Rhode Island is actually longer (in relative terms, but that's all we ever have, anyway) than in many other locales.  Admittedly, it's also a bit of a walk.         

Now, to dispense with the uncertainty and spill the proverbial beans (what does that even mean anyway?), the main reasons we purchased the home are because we like it (an open layout mid-century modern ranch in a New England city filled with colonials) and because it was in great condition.  Also, it happens to be over the city line in Pawtucket, which means that taxes are demonstrably lower and that you can get far more for your money (assuming you're willing to give up a posh East Side address).  So far, we love it, and guests have been gracious in taking the hike with us for Shabbat meals.  

The point?  When I first started attending Shabbat services regularly as a young teenager, the walk was also long (actually longer) and less scenic to boot.  On Friday nights, the long walk home served as an extended time to bask in the beauty of twilight while being accompanied by the majestic malachei hashareit (ministering angels) that traditionally accompany Jews home from the Synagogue and into their homes on Friday night.  Practically, it was a way to internalize the tranquility of Shabbat and served as a serious break between the hustle and bustle of the work week.  On Shabbat morning, the peacefulness of the walk served as the perfect introduction to prayer.  With time to think and the solitude of being alone, my thoughts would inevitably turn to the upcoming prayers and to the presence of the Sabbath in my life.  By the time I would arrive, I had unintentionally prepared myself in a way that calmed and sensitized my soul.  I was in the mood, even anxious, to pray and express through the words of the Siddur and the thoughts of my mind the stirring I often felt on my Shabbat morning walk.

Enter college, and Hillel was a stone's throw away from my dorm room.  This pattern followed me for the rest of my life, and I continued to choose, actively and intentionally, to live in close proximity to a Synagogue.  Always, it was more convenient, closer to the heart of the community, and seemed like the wise decision, religiously and socially.

Fast forward a decade, and the economy has taught me a valuable (if accidental) lesson.  It didn't take more than the first Sabbath in our new home until I felt Shabbos in a way I haven't in more than a decade.  Once again, Friday nights are more spiritual and peaceful; morning prayers feel soulful and buzzing with life.  The extra love I felt for Shabbat in my youth has returned, and the funny thing is that I didn't even know it had ever gone.

I share my personal experience in the hope that it will spur thoughts and discussion about how to create meaningful ruach (spirit) and a spiritually complete Sabbath.  I've devoted much energy to this personally, yet ultimately a short walk did more for me than anything else.             

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Two-Way Street

Lately, it seems that the observant community has a penchant for dealing with big-picture political types of issues without taking a needed vacation. We've engaged in collective conversations (sometimes not quite conversations) on Israeli politics, the chief rabbinate, the modern kollel system financially and religiously, mandatory army service for all, feminism, women clergy, mesirah, child-abuse, racism in Jewish culture, civil and religious same-sex marriage, and now biblical criticism.  No doubt, all of these issues are important, some of them extremely so, as Orthodox Judaism confronts modernity head on.  Still, most of these issues concern themselves with the structure of Judaism or the hierarchy of organized Jewish life; for a while, I'd like to return to basic substantive Jewish issues.

Likely, blessings are the most common and frequent expression of Jewish religion at the current time. Regardless of theological philosophy, denomination, political preference, blessings as a means of expression are nearly universally accepted and practiced.  We make blessings over objects and actions ranging from the mundane to the holy.  There are blessings before and after consumption of food, after using the bathroom, upon arising, upon going to bed, upon hearing bad news or being informed of a death, upon birth and joyous occasions, on weddings, britot, holidays, candles, wine, lightning, thunder, fragrances . . . . (this could go on for a long time).  Blessings are important component of Judaism, whether or not one believes them to be legally required or merely spiritually efficacious.  It was just this sort of near-universal embrace that recently caused Rabbi Avi Shafran to publish an essay on the Cross Currents suggesting an all-out embrace of brachot as a response to elevate levels of discord.

Ever since I was first introduced to the Talmud, I've taken an extra interest in the tractate on blessings.  I'm not sure what it is, but I find the subject compelling.  Perhaps it's the fact that it's the first masechet that I learned, or simply the relevance of its subject matter to everyday life.  Either way, I'd like to share some personal reflections and thoughts about the way we bless.

In large part, our blessings are substantially a way to transcend the physical and focus on God, the ultimate spiritual ontology.  Who gives us our food?  Who put us here in the first place, that we should be able to partake of food?  We've survived till this exciting season, but Who has sustained us, and for what purpose?  We open by declaring "Baruch Atah Hashem . . . ."  We open by declaring that God is blessed, and by speaking directly to God, as if to ascend the heavens and approach Him directly.  Both the diction and the grammar cause us to focus on God directly.  Nevermind for the moment the various opinions and disputes about what it means for God to be blessed.  Ultimately, the opening of the beracha brings us to focus on God as a way to appreciate what we have and place it in perspective.

There is, however, another part to each and every blessing, the second part.  During this part, we focus not on God or some theosophical notion of who or what God is, but rather on what it is God does in our world.  From our ascent to the height of the heavens, we descend rapidly and completely to the physical realities of earthly existence, and contemplate them well.  We focus on the commandments (usually actions) that God has commanded us to do, the lightning he has created, the wine we have fermented, and so on.  Ultimately, the conclusion of the beracha is designed to cause an almost meditative mindfulness and awareness of physical phenomena as a way to more deeply and substantively appreciate God's input.

Sometimes, it feels like we focus almost exclusively on the first part of the equation, as if we could just approach a conception of God without assistance.  For these past few weeks, I've started to try and give equal weight to the end of the beracha, in an effort to appreciate the handiwork, the substance of our lives, and therein the Creator who made them.