Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pillars of the World

"Shimon the Just was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly.  He used to say: On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on Divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness." - Pirkei Avot 1:2

This is perhaps one of the most famous mishanyot (oral law teachings) from Pirkei Avot, often translated as Ethics of the Fathers.  As an aside, I believe this translation is in error, and that a better translation exists for the title of the work; avot, or fathers, is a word that is usually reserved exclusively for the three forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but no one else.  In fact, this notion is codified as a talmudic ruling in Masechet Brachot.  Here, the word "avot" would be better translated as major principles, a meaning which it has in other sections of the Mishna (e.g. arba'ah avot nezikin, etc.).  In that case, the work would be titled "The Chapters of Funadmenatal Principles."  

Clasically, I always understood the three-fold approach in the Mishna as referring to study, prayer, and kindness as the three main substructual categories by which a person can serve the Creator.  Recently, when studying this teaching, it dawned on me that it's saying something similar but entirely different, and the meaning I've been assuming for years isn't nearly precise enough.  In my haste to read more, I had failed to think adequately about the intent and deeper meaning, and so repeated this teaching dozens of times without ever really appreciating its message.

First and foremost, it must be noted that these three things are literally pillars of the world.  What does that mean?  Images of Atlas physically supporting the planet immediately pop up in my mind.  Definitively not the intended meaning.  Rather, this is a statement of ontological reality, and these are the principles at the very heart of existence.  

I humbly submit that "Torah" here refers not to study per se, but to the notion of revelation as a relationship. The Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the universe) calls out to his creation with imperatives of ethical living.  We respond to a calling and hold ourself to a standard because God has left His silo, so to speak, and chose to assume names, qualities, and presence in our lives.  To phrase it another way, Torah here represents the most simple and basic notion that God chose to create; as the Midrash teaches, God looked into the Torah and created the world.  As Rav Kook notes in his commentary to the siddur, the notion of a Living Torah so popular in our faith means that the Torah is a uniter and actual source of life. This first act of literally indescribable love, benevolence, and kindness on the part of God and His reaching out to humans and all of His creation is the first foundational relationship.

"Avodah," divine worship, had always symbolized prayer to me.  However, from a perspective of relationship, it stands for man's great reach for the Divine.  If Torah describes the room God creates for man, then Avodah describes the ways we attempt to invite God into our lives.  Jewish prayer, requesting and noting the godliness of our salaries, health, desires, spiritual growth, national status, and all the rest of the classical prayer topics, represents a main way in which we reach up (or should I say in) to bring God into our lives, or alternatively, to become more godly ourselves.  Our quest to connect in response to Torah represents the second pillar of existence; as the prophet Jeremiah noted long ago, with the world was created for Brit, covenant.  That we should reach beyond our limited circumstances to connect to the greatness beyond is another of creations causes.

"Gemillut Chasadim," acts of loving-kindness, represent the third leg of the relationship.  Caring for others is not merely a third avenue of divinely endorsed comportment, it is a metaphysical fundamental. This represents our mutual reaching out to one another, as nivraim, creations, recognizing that we are all of us merely part of a much greater whole, charged with overcoming our individuality and learning to care without boundary for each other and all things.  This spirit manifests compassionate, responsible treatment of the animal and even plant kingdoms, and should cause us to act in harmony with our environment and planet.  It is related to an internalization of the other legs (true knowledge of God brings about an understanding of ultimate unity and a sense of communion with nature and all that is).  Physically and metaphysically, then, the world and society stand as a result of our concern with each other.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Metaphysical Fitness

(This is a piece written originally for the 401(j) blog)

As  I jog down beautiful Blackstone Boulevard, freely breathing the cleaner-than-usual air and taking simple pleasure in the shade of the strong sturdy trees, I can’t help but marvel at the many people (and dogs) also enjoying the East Side’s treasured oasis on an enlivened June day.  A tall father expertly and routinely jogs while pushing a jogging stroller, as if this novelty of convenience and health had always existed.  Two elderly visor donning women briskly alternate arms as they power walk in 90’s era walking suits – remember those?  A group of college students quicker and leaner than the rest pass us all, for the third time; I now suppose they must be members of an organized cross country team.  Bikers decked out in numbered uniforms and serious biking gear zoom by, while cars are eager to wait patiently for the myriad strollers, joggers, and walkers.  In short, “the Boulevard” as it’s affectionately called by locals serves as a symbol of the great commitment to physical and mental well-being that has so deeply pervaded our sense of lifestyle.  I often feel proud to live in a city and join as part of a local community with Blackstone Boulevard as a sort of crowned jewel.
Along with a cultural commitment to physical wellbeing, it seems that a new trend is arising, and it’s one I’d like to reflect on today.  I’m calling it “metaphysical fitness”, a name which came out of a group conversation at the International Rabbinic Fellowship’s recent conference; I did not invent the name and take no credit for it.  Moreover, it doesn’t much matter whether the type of fitness it intends to describe is in fact truly metaphysical (denoting something beyond the physical existence of this present universe) or really some deep physical manifestation within the brain.  Broadly speaking, it conjures up notions of spiritual well being, including the health of the soul and a connection with the unified Source of all life.  Our relationship to nature and the natural world become important from this perspective, as does the universal connection of all things to all other things, shedding away the masks of individuality and separateness that Jewish mystics have long called useful illusions. 

Now, the model of fitness serves as a useful paradigm from which to examine how to improve individually and collectively our metaphysical well-being.  Meditation, mindfulness, reflection, perspective, song, harmony, and prayer are the gym equipment of the metaphysical health center, and daily practice, tailored individually, is key in this arena as well.  As a Rabbi, many people often complain to me regarding the difficulties they face when coming to pray.  “Rabbi, it just doesn’t speak to me – I’m unfamiliar with the words and grow bored quickly.”  I’ve felt this way as well at times, and the High Holidays often foster this sentiment amongst multitudes of serious (and seriously frustrated) Jews. 

In 2010, I was in poor physical shape, and decided that I needed to incorporate regular cardio into my weekly routine.  I tentatively and self-consciously entered the Yeshiva University gym, and began to jog on the treadmill.  I could barely complete 1.5 miles on a non-inclined indoor treadmill, and was legitimately wondering if my heart and lungs could bear the exercise.  Looking back a mere four years later, even a semi-regular often interrupted routine of jogging and exercise makes those days seem laughable.  Gradual regular practice at any discipline is the time-honored surefire way to improve, and the spiritual realm is no different.  If you try out prayer, meditation, and the other gym equipment to promote healthy soulful living (and I’d encourage everyone to give it a serious try), don’t give up when it’s tough at the beginning.  Stick it out, find ways to improve your technique, whether from metaphysical trainers or literature, and you’ll certainly note a gradual but surprising increase in metaphysical well being.            

Friday, July 4, 2014

Shabbat - A Heavenly Testament to Earthly Holiness

Dear Friends, 

We express our grief, tears, pain, shock, and profound sadness upon learning of the vicious murder of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar earlier this week.  It is our hope and prayer that God grant their families, friends, and the whole nation a measure of comfort during this period of raw unimaginable pain.

We joined in the mourning by watching the painful funeral at the RCA conference this past week.  There, Prime Minister Netanyahu movingly stated that "[o]ur enemies sanctify death but we sanctify life . . . we prayed for a miracle but were answered only with tragedy."  He went on to add that "there is a huge ethical gap which separates our enemies from us." 

Truthfully, radical Islamic terrorism represents one of the great moral threats to the sanctity of life throughout the world.  Particularly, millions of women, children, Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in countries as diverse as Iraq, Israel, Syria, Nigeria, and Russia are persecuted daily by this terrible violent ideology.  As Jews, it is our moral obligation and imperative to join our brothers throughout the world in fighting to protect the religious value of life so fundamental to our faith.  

As we prepare to accept Shabbat, may we fulfill its spirit and law by recalling the creation of the world whereupon God, Who's very name denotes the holy source of all life, continually recreates us as working partners to foster a sense of unity, holiness, and harmony.  It is my prayer that our response to this frightful tragedy will be a redoubling of effort and renewed commitment to the values of human dignity, unity, and responsibility to each other that we hold so dear.  

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Dolinger