Bust a Move!

April 2, 2015

After the rabbi’s sermon this Shabbat (R’ Adin Steinzaltz in the Chabad shul of the old city), I found myself trying to classify psychological resistances.  I tried to figure how many levels of resistance exist.  A resistance happens when we’re stuck in some kind of pattern of behavior that we can’t break out of.  It comes into play when there is a growth step in front of us, and we’re afraid to take it.  An example is a person who perpetually eats foods that are not healthy, even though he knows that such foods are not good for him.  He is resistant to changing his eating patterns.  You might call that a “daily resistance.”  Then, you have others whose resistance is in the area of personal relationships.  They may be shy, and find it difficult to change the nature of their personality in order to crawl out of their shell and form relationships.  You might call that a “yearly resistance,” because it may take years to overcome.  Finally, there are those who are born with a certain natural personality.  Some people are intellectual by nature, for example.  They love to study and think and meditate.  They are filled with amazement at every new thing that they learn.  So, it is very difficult for them to break out of their nature and get involved with tikun olam – with social involvement and “fixing the world.”  I’m going to call that a “lifetime resistance,” because to overcome it, one has to change not only the personality with which they grew up, but their genetic nature from birth.  So, we have here three different levels – one who has to change his behavior, though not necessarily his personality.  Another has to change his personality, from introverted to extroverted.  The third has the greatest challenge of all; he must change his nature, and that is virtually impossible.  Who among us is able to make a switch from the way he was born, to some other kind of nature?  It is much easier to change the nature of your personality than to change your pesonal nature.  Yet, that’s what we are called upon to do on Pesach.  We’re called to “bust a move.”  And that is why Rabbi Steinzaltz closed his drasha by telling us that it is not enough to eat the matza and maror and drink the wine.  We also have to “bust a move,” to break on through to the other side, each according to his own challenges.  During the original Pessach, the Jews made a move – they left Egypt behind.  We are called on to do the same next Friday night – each of us to look for the personal mitzrayim (Egypt but also “limitations”) and leave it behind.  That’s the Pesach challenge – the rest is up to us.

For more information, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  And if you really want to delve deeply, try www.jewishspiritualbooks.com  Finally for a view of daily life in Jerusalem, go to www.chabadjerusalem.org

Chag kasher v’sameach!

Renew It!

March 26, 2015

It’s a beautiful time of year, and I want to share some beautiful words with you.  We’ve just entered the spring, and along with the spring (Pesach) cleaning come some real nice things that we do during the first days of the Jewish month of Nissan.  We say the “tree-hugger’s” blessing (bircat ha’ilan), and we recite the Nasi, or “prince” of the day.  The blessing is said over the newly blooming trees that flower this month, and the nasi is recited in honor of the twelve tribes, each of whom played a part in the inauguration of the mobile temple in the desert – the mishkan.  The tree blessing is to “thank God,” who “created a universe lacking nothing, in order to benefit and provide enjoyment to man.”  And during the recitation of the nasi, we mention all the nice materials that the tribes contributed to the building of the Temple.  But, I never understood the connection between these two events; saying the tree-blessing, and reciting the Nasi.  Here it is – they both occur during the spring.  And the word for spring in Hebrew is aviv.  Spelt in Hebrew, it begins with the word Av, meaning “father,” obviously an allusion to the One above, our Father in heaven.  It is then followed by the two letters yud-beit, which carry the gematria or numerical value of twelve.  So, obviously that is an allusion to the twelve tribes.  So, there you have it – the spring season (aviv) connects the One above with the twelve tribes of Israel.  And why the blessing at this time?  Well, a tree is also an av – a “father.”  It symbolizes a tzaddik or righteous person, whose roots of faith reach deep into the earth, and whose branches represent the different paths of serving God, and whose leaves provide shade or protection, and whose fruit provides provide nourishment.  So, the tree is also an av, a “father” to all of us.  In conclusion then, this particular period of springtime is all about making a connection.  We do it through the Av – the One above and also alluding to the tzaddik, and we do it through the twelve tribes, each of whom provide a separate path of spiritual approach to God.  The spring time, and especially Pesach, is the time to renew our connection!

For more on the subject, and especially on how to connect through Jewish prayer and meditation, go to our site at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  And if that’s not enough and you want to delve deeper into Jewish meditation and prayer, try www.jewishspiritualbooks.com  Finally, for a taste of daily Jerusalem spiritual life, check out www.chabadjerusalem.org  And have a happy and kosher Pesach!

A Choice Day (and a day of choices)

March 17, 2015

It’s that pleasant stage of the year when Purim is behind us and Pesach is in front of us.  Some call it “living in the shadow of Purim.”  We’re not yet under the influence of Pesach, with all its pressures of cleaning and preparation, and a ray of Purim joy still shines.  So, what do we do?  Well, one thing to do is to take clues from the original Hebrews, the Jews who were wandering in the desert before entering Israel.  At this time of the year, after receiving the Torah, they were building.  They were constructing a beautiful traveling sanctuary composed of all of the most expensive and interesting materials that man has in his possession.  Special skins, rare stones, precious metals and unique wood filled the mishkan, or traveling “tabernacle” in the desert, where God communicated with Moses, who then conveyed God’s word to the Jews.  And it was the Jews themselves who contributed the materials.  So, what we can do now, after Purim, is build.  We may not have the physical building of either the mishkan or the Temple, but we do have our own souls, to work on and to “build.”  Etymologically, the word “build” (boneh) is related to the Hebrew word for meditation (hitbonenut).  By meditating on spiritual concepts, we can build a sort of spiritual sanctuary inside of ourselves, where we can dwell every day for a certain amount of time while we meditate.  While we dwell in our own personal building, we work within it, expanding its horizons and getting acquainted with all the nooks and crannies of our own spiritual edifice.  Perhaps that is our task during this period of the year.  And our hope is that by preparing our own “little sanctuary” within, we will hasten the building of the actual physical Temple as soon as possible.

By the way, the physical Temple was also called the Beit Habechira, or the “House of choice,” since it was there that God chose to make His presence revealed and experienced.  Although we no longer have the temple, we do have some choices to make in Israel today.  It is a day of bechirot, of making choices, at the ballot box.  We should pray for the wisdom to choose correctly.  For more on prayers, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly.  And if you want to delve into the topic of Jewish prayer and meditation, have a look at our suite of Jewish spiritual books at www.jewishspiritualbooks.com.  Finally, for a glimpse into everyday Chabad life in Jerusalem, try www.chabadjerusalem.org   Have a great day!

Jerusalem Music Festival

March 11, 2015

Tonite reminded me of one of the reasons I love living in Israel.  This evening, just outside our windows, the Jerusalem music festival began.  During this festival, ethnic bands are scattered throughout the old city, with Jewish bands playing in the Jewish quarter, Armenian bands in the Armenian quarter, and a smattering of middle eastern musical groups at Jaffa Gate and the rest of the old city.  As the visitor walks into the old city, he encounters one band after another like a sort of musical “smorgasbord,” filling the senses with all kinds of sounds.  Of course being a resident of the Jewish quarter, I am most interested in the Jewish bands.  In the Cardo a Jewish rock band was playing, and in the square, a great Jewish jazz band played.  Last year, we were regaled by the Gat brothers, Ehud Banai, Adi Ran, and by Ariel Zilber.  We will see who arrives this year, but it is bound to be fantastic!  A word to the spiritually wise; Jewish people are musical.  It is built into the Torah.  Aside from the letters of the Torah, unwritten musical cantillations are part of the written tradition of the Torah, guiding the reader in the public chanting of the Torah.  Perhaps that is why Jews are so prominent in music, both as instrumentalists and as composers – much moreso than in the visual arts, for example.  When we let go of our logical functions and let our mind wander in the realm of basic emotions, music is the language of choice.  The dynamic of musical notes is a language of its own, accessing the deeper recesses of our mind.  Musical melodies give us a sense of a spiritual journey taking place, arousing various emotions of love, fear and apprehension before resolving them at the end of the song with a soothing conclusion.  Music is a story without words, and it has accompanied the Jews throughout our spiritual journeys.

For this week’s tefila tip on how to pray with deep spiritual meaning, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  And if you’d like to explore Jewish meditation and meditational prayer on a deeper level, then have a look at www.jewishspiritualbooks.com  Finally, for a glimpse of Jewish life in Jerusalem for English speakers, check out www.chabadjerusalem.org  Have a great week and it’s time to start thinking about Pesach!

When it all gets turned around…

March 4, 2015

Do you sense a change in the air?  Can you feel the new winds blowing? Something positive is about to happen and in fact, it’s happening already.  When Purim rolls around, the Jews are on a roll.  It’s felt in the US, in Washington DC and here in Jerusalem as well.  The operative words of the Purim story are, Venahafoch hu – “And it all got turned around.”  Whether in the life of nations or in the life of individuals, a good approach is to take whatever comes your way, accepting it with equanimity, and then when the right moment comes, to turn it around.  That’s the Purim story in a nutshell…for months the Jews “took it” from an anti-semitic minister in the court of the Persian king, and then when they had an opportunity, a righteous Jewish woman “turned it around.”  There’s another angle to this story; the whole time that we are “taking it on the chin” from the powers that be, we do not see the purpose behind the whole story.  We do not detect the Godliness that is present.  Only after we have made the “turn-around” does it become evident that really He was there throughout the events.  Throughout the Purim story in the scroll of Esther, there is no mention of God.  Only at the end, after the turn-around, does it become clear that He was present and guiding the events all along.  Every detail, every  event, and every episode was pregnant with higher purpose, even if we were unaware of it at the time.  That is the human condition.  We find ourselves in circumstances that are beyond our control, with limited awareness, and our goal must be to overcome the limitations and reveal the higher purpose that is behind the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  So, when we sit down this week at our Purim feast, let’s recall the tough details, and then recall how it gets turned around to reveal the reality that He is with us all the time.  That’s how the Jews roll…

If you’d like to know more about how the Jews roll, and especially about how we pray and meditate, have a look at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  To really delve into the subject in depth, check out our suite of books on the subject of Jewish meditative prayer, at www.jewishspritualbooks.com.  And finally, for some information about Chabad in Jerusalem, check out our site at www.chabadjerusalem.org  Have a nice day and a fantastic Purim!

After the Snow Melts (Tefila tip #13)

February 24, 2015

Jerusalem ushered in the month of Adar (12th month on the Jewish calendar) with a snow storm.  The snow didn’t stick around for long, and now it is gone.  But snow is a parable for something that’s important, and since it is always good to look under the hood and find the spiritual meaning, let’s have a look under the “snow-hood.”  Ice is hard; when water freezes, it forms an impenetrable wall, through which nothing can pass.  Snow, on the other hand is soft – it forms a protective cover that melts easily and reveals whatever what was behind it or under it.  When it melts, it becomes water, which is a symbol of the Torah; just as water flows from a high place down to a low place, so Torah descends from a high spiritual place to influence our universe below.  So, when Jerusalem is visited by a snow storm, it suggests to us to look for signs of revealed spirituality in our lives.

Here’s another sign of the times.  According to the most ancient book of kaballah (the Sefer Yetzira), there is a sense, or personal quality that is associated with every month.  The sense of Adar is laughter – the ability to see what’s behind the veneer and “under the hood” and to be amazed by it (just like when snow melts).  The source of laughter in the Torah was our matriarch, Sarah, who “laughed” when she was told, at the age of 90, that she would have a child.  It was Sarah who “fixed the luminaries,” who enhanced the moon so that it felt equal to the sun.  How did she do that?  Here we have a nice “gematria,” or numerical value that gives us a hint – the word for “laughter” in Hebrew is tzchok, of gematria 204.  And the word for “you loved” is ahavta, of numerical value 408, or twice the gematria of tzchok (“laughter”).  That’s because there were two kind of laughter that went into the love that Sarah felt for her not yet born son.  There was the laughter of amazement, as when we laugh upon perceiving something new, and there is the laughter of satisfaction, as when we experience satiation and never felt so good before.  One laughter is “before,” the other is “after.”  But in both cases laughter brings healing and love to the world.  In fact, it is Sarah’s son Yitzhak (“he will laugh”) who will herald the arrival of meshiach (the Jewish messiah), hopefully soon.  Let us hope that is what we will experience this year, beginning this month.

To find out more about the love and prayer, go to our site at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  That may only whet your appetite, and if you want more, check out our books at www.jewishspiritualbooks.com  Finally, for a glimpse into Jewish life in Jerusalem, go to www.chabadjerusalem.org  And have a dry and warm day!

Skipping Rope…

February 18, 2015

There is a well known parable from one of the most famous Chasidic masters, R’ Yisrael of Ruzhin. He was asked what it will be like to live in the era before the arrival of meshiach, the Jewish messiah.  He replied that just before meshiach arrives, God will tie a rope around the earth.  Those who have some emunah (“faith” in God) will grab hold of the rope with both hands.  God will then start to shake the rope, sending larger and larger shock waves around the globe.  It will be difficult to remain holding on, but those who do so will merit to see the meshiach.

Given current events, it is difficult to deny the shaking of the rope right now.  Whether in international affairs such as Iran and Ukraine, or in private matters that we are all aware of, we are living in “interesting times,” to say the least. But our shaking universe may also be a positive event.  For example, there is something incredibly good and positive about the ability of some people to uproot their lives from a secure environment and dedicate themselves to a higher cause.  I am thinking of the Israeli soldiers who come from the diaspora and enlist in the IDF virtually without prior knowledge of Israel or of the military or of the Hebrew language.  That is one example of the rope-shaking, but in a positive manner.

However, I am a rabbi, and my job is to call attention to something else, that R’ Yisrael of Ruzhin knew far more about than I do.  And that is, beyond the shaking rope there is an island of refuge, a sea of calm and a soothing balm for those who can access it – and all can access it.  When everything else is moving and shaking, there is and always has been a transcendent force that lifts us up and out of the inferno.  It takes us beyond the raging waters of the events preceding the arrival of meshiach.  I’m talking about learning Torah and practicing meditative prayer.. These activities lift us above the fray, and bring us into contact with a higher authority.  They are the true purpose of a Jew, whose real task in this world is to bring the spiritual down into mundane life.  So, while we may not be able to avoid the crazy events just before the arrival of meshiach, we can also raise ourselves beyond them.  For more advice on how to do so, check out our website at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  For a deeper dive into meditative prayer, go to www.jewishspiritualbooks.com.  And finally in order to be in touch with good stuff here in Jerusalem, go to www.chabadjerusalem.org  Have a great week and stay warm!

Entry Level Meditation

February 11, 2015

As one who teaches Jewish mystical texts as well as meditation based upon Jewish sources, I have to field some good questions from my students.  For example, “what am I supposed to feel when I meditate?”  Or, “I’m not feeling anything, what am I doing wrong?”  Or, “how do I know if I’m doing this correctly?”  The answers are very much dependent upon the individual, but in general, no one should expect to “feel anything” in the early stages of meditation.  We should just make sure that we are focused properly on the concepts and then the feelings, such as they are, will flow spontaneously.  It does not happen overnight.  Only with much practice and study do we become proficient enough to experience a little bit of love and fear of God during our meditation.  Moreover, it is a mistake to focus on what we are “feeling.”  Our goal should be to become as butel, or “nullified” to God as possible, and one who is nullified is not aware of his own feelings.  In fact, he is not aware of himself at all.  He only knows that he is not a worthy “vessel” for Godly illumination and therefore he focuses upon the techniques of improving himself and understanding Godly concepts as well as possible.  The rest will follow on its own.

Nevertheless, there is one “technique,” if it can be called that, which allows us to directly perceive the source.  In Chasidic literature, it is called, “gazing upon the glory of the King.”  The experienced meditator will occasionally find that he does not need to meditate in the morning, because on that particular occasion, he is directly in touch with something beyond himself.  In such a situation, he should not “fight it,” by forcing himself to meditate upon intellectual concepts of Godliness.  Rather, he should sit back and enjoy the gift that God has given him from above, and “gaze upon the glory of the King,” – that is, follow the experience to wherever it takes him.  At that point, it is possible that active intellectual meditation would get in the way of, rather than facilitate, his flow of divine emotion.  Nevertheless, for most of us, this kind of Godly epiphany is a rare occurrence.  On the vast majority of occasions, we will need to work hard and focus for long minutes in order to well understand and internalize Godly concepts that form the basis of our meditation.

There are some who ask, “Rabbi, what are you talking about?  I have no time for meditation, no time for thinking about spiritual concepts, and I’m lucky to get to synagogue, put on my tefillin, mumble a few words, and leave in time for work.”  Without doubt, such people are to be respected and encouraged, for they are honorably fulfilling their obligations and raising wonderful families.  Still, there is a halacha (Jewish law) to take into consideration, requiring us to “think about the greatness of God and the lowliness of man” before praying.  But, for others, the problem is that they are just plain skeptical, and they don’t think that us mortals can get closer to God and actually experience spirituality.  If that’s you, then let me make a suggestion:  Go out to the Israeli desert.  Make sure you arrive to the Judean desert or the Negev or the Sinai desert around 8 in the morning, when virtually nobody is around.  And just sit there and listen.  And listen some more.  And if you don’t hear anything, just wait another five or ten minutes.  The word for desert in Hebrew is midbar, spelt exactly the same as medaber, which means “speak.”  If after a half an hour you don’t hear the desert speaking to you, you may need hearing aids.  The desert is where the Jews heard and saw Godliness, and received the Torah.  It is the place where God first communicated with the Jewish people (individuals such as the forefathers found God in other environments).  It is the source of the Jewish spiritual experience, and it is where we can all return to in order to renew it and rejuvenate (some say re”Jew”venate) our experience.  Of course, there is something more you can do to examine Jewish prayers and meditation – go to our website, at www.jewishspiritualbooks.com  Or check out the latest blog at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly   Finally, for a quick rundown on what Chabad in Jerusalem has to offer you, go to www.chabadjerusalem.org  And have a great week!

Pass the Fruit, Please!

February 5, 2015

You might think that a Jewish festival occurring in the middle of the winter would be a cold event.  Not here in Jerusalem.  Our Tu b’Shvat seder took place on a warm winter day, one of quite a few that we have experienced lately.  There’s something very uplifting about Tu b’Shvat.  The emphasis on renewal and regeneration, celebrated over four cups of wine and the fruits of Israel puts a positive spin on the entire winter.  Moreover, the idea that growth begins from “less than zero,” is a very powerful concept.  When the first shoots of the new year push their heads up from underground this month, they are not in a friendly environment.  The ground has not yet thawed and the sun is not generally shining; it’s the depth of winter.  The corollary in human experience is that real growth does not necessarily begin from a zero.  It may begin from adversity, from less than comfortable circumstances.  From the adversity is born greatness.  On another level, we experience renewal and rejuvenation not only every year, but every day.  That is the subject of our current Tefila Tip, that you can read at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  Getting up in the morning is not simple, and we need a high light from above to launch our daily routine.  For deeper analysis of Jewish prayer and meditation, check out www.jewishspiritualbooks.com and finally to get a perspective on spiritual life in Jerusalem, go to www.chabadjerusalem.org  Happy Tu b’Shvat!

Tefila Tip #9, Morning Coffee and Blessings

January 27, 2015

If you’re anything like me, a strong cup of coffee in the morning is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.  My sluggishness is matched only by my grouchiness upon rising in the morning.  My friends know to give me a wide berth before roughly ten AM.  I’m not proud of this, but I accept it as one of my limitations.  I have learned to keep my mouth shut in the morning rather than get in any verbal spats with those unprepared for my morning mood.  And yet, I admit, there must be a better way of dealing with this murky attitude…

So, I wondered, what could be the spiritual root of my morning grouchiness.  In this case, the search was made easier by a Chasidic discourse that discusses the spiritual root of the morning blessings that we say upon arising.  The discourse compares the morning blessings to an event that occurs during this week’s Torah portion (Beshalach) – the exodus from Egypt.

The Exodus occurred when the Jews were not ready for it.  There was no way that they could prepare for such an event, since they themselves were very attached to their lives in Egypt.  Egypt – Mitzrayim in Hebrew – means “limitations.”  There’s no way you could live in Egypt and not be limited, spiritually, physically, emotionally.  Egypt was the land of occult sciences – the Egyptians knew how to “work on” their subjects to make them think that there was no way they could leave.  And so, by the time the Exodus came around, most of the Jews were no longer thinking of leaving.  It required a huge, supernatural boost from Above to remove the Jews from their state of limitations in Egypt.  A huge burst of spiritual light blasted the Jews free from the occult framework that the Egyptians had spun around them.  They couldn’t remove themselves from bondage of their own accord; action was required from Above.

The Chasidic discourse goes on to state that we are in a similar state every morning when we arise.  Sleeping is a mostly physical activity that places emphasis on the body.  We don’t think, we don’t feel, we merely rest our body.  So, when we awaken, we are more physical than spiritual.  It takes some time to work off the last vestiges of sleep.  In the meantime, we are bound and limited by our body, until our intellect and emotion begin to operate and we begin to function like human beings.  And, similar to the exodus from Egypt, it requires a high spiritual light to remove us from our stupor and launch us into avodat Hashem – “divine service.”  What provides the impetus?  What supplies the high light from Above that launches our day?  It’s the morning blessings.  When we bless the essential name of God, the name of Havaya, we bring down a blast of His infinite light, that similar to the exodus from Egypt, lifts us out of limitations.  Each of the eighteen morning blessings conveys an aspect of His infinite light that has the power to lift us out of limitations and kick-start our day.

Of course, given this explanation, it wasn’t necessary for me to look much further for the source of my morning mood.  When you arise and find yourself in limitations, half asleep, unable (for the moment) to concentrate or feel anything, it makes you “grouchy.”  But, among the things that I learned from the Chasidic discourse is that it’s the morning blessings that set us free, not the morning coffee…

Let me tell you from the very beginning that the Test does not always work.  Not because it is based upon wrong principles, but because we don’t always have the proper tools to ensure that it works.  We are not always capable of finding the spiritual source of our physical experiences below.  There are two ways in which we may succeed at the Test; either we can meditate well and properly to achieve the necessary spiritual level to solve the problem, or we can take advice from someone who has “been there before” and can report back to us.  If you want to know how I solved this quandary, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly.  There you will find a detailed account of how to arise and overcome your morning grouchiness.  If you’d like to know more about Jewish meditation and prayer, try our suite of books and www.jewishspiritualbooks.com.  And if you just want to know what’s happening in Jerusalem, try www.chabadjerusalem.org  Stay warm and cozy…


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