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Monday, October 24, 2011

Just Another Mindful Monday: On the Topic of Prayer

I love this photograph of Jewish women praying at the Kotel (Western Wall), taken in 1848

Happy Mindful Monday! It has been a while since I've posted on this theme and a while since I've been online--though as of sundown Saturday night, this High Holy Day season has finally drawn to a close. Don't get me wrong--I love holidays and this season in particular is laden with meaning for me, but I am quite at peace with returning to my usual routine at this point.
A dear friend of mine has taken on the huge mitzvah of learning together once a week with me. I refer to it as our Torah Tuesdays. The reason I say this is a huge mitzvah is not just because I appreciate our time together so much (which I do!) but because of the importance placed on educating another Jew by Judaism itself. There is a well known Talmudic proverb, which states:
"Whoever teaches his son teaches not alone his son, but also his son's son, and so on to the end of generations." -- Talmud, Kiddushin 30aJudaism places so much importance on teaching and educating that the act of learning with and teaching a fellow Jew is also said to fulfill the commandment stated in Dueteronomy 11:19 to "dilligently teach your children..." even for those who do not have children of their own.
But, yet again, I digress--perhaps I shall post at another time on the role of education in Judaism. For now, I want to focus on the topic of prayer.
I borrowed a book from my friend a couple of weeks ago titled "How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household." The author, Blu Greenberg, had the following to say on the role of daily prayer:
"Prayer serves many functions, in fact, every function and its opposite:
It is a safety hatch when one is overcome by fear or dread, anger or need.
It calls forth a generosity of the human spirit. Prayer reminds us not to take totally for granted that which we all must presume as we go about our business--the gifts of life, health, love, and good fortune. If we constantly worried about these essentials, we would be paralyzed in our actions. If we took them for granted all the time, we would be ingrates, and most unprepared for the vagaries or life.
Prayer sometimes enables us to reach into our own souls, to see what it's like in there. The truth is that we can get by very well for long periods of time without this contact with our inner selves, but at some point it catches up.
Prayer is a sensation of community; but it is also a feeling of intense loneliness, and aloneness with G-d."
(Chapter 4, page 137)

For me, prayer has taken on many roles. It has sometimes been like having a conversation with G-d. Sometimes it has been forced, rote, mechanical. Sometimes it has been full of feeling and meaning. I pray at times out of habit, at times out of what some might call superstition, at times out of desperation and hope, at times out of joy and gratitude. Many times, all of these factors play in to one Shabbat or one Krias Shema (prayers before retiring at night).
It would look pretty on paper to say my relationship to/belief in my G-d comes as easily to me as the breath to my lungs or the beating of my heart. It has not and does not. In the past, starting that "conversation" of prayer has been challenged by my not knowing to Whom I was speaking. The name game would get in the way--after all, one cannot address a "G-d" she does not believe exists. In those times, which were driven as much by comfort as they were by anger or pain, my prayers would take me by surprise. I'd find myself calling out G-d when I least expected to. That, in hindsight, is as natural and involuntary as the human heart beat or act of breathing.
Judaism recognizes that prayer will not always come with feeling. It recognizes that oftentimes our thoughts or emotions will serve as a barrier rather than motivator when it comes to talking with G-d. That is one reason why we have so many prayers we say daily, weekly, at holidays, on special milestones, painful occasions, even when eating, seeing something in nature, wearing a new item of clothing, using the bathroom, taking a road-trip, etc. It is well known that there are and will be times when we cannot find the words to begin the conversation; Judaism gives that to us.
However, equally important are those words which do come straight from a place deep within. Whether it is from despair and desire, from a place of loneliness or fear--we are all granted a private audience--"aloneness with G-d"--to pour out our soul-song when the occasion arises.
In the early stages of diagnostic testing over a year ago, well before it was discovered that I have severe sleep apnea, I had to go through 3 rounds of MRIs. This took 3 days and over six hours. I was terrified of the machine, the small space, the inability to move, the dark and the loud noises--not to mention all the anxiety of what they might be looking for in there! The one thing that got me through was to continuously recite in my mind the words to a Jewish song, Adon Olam. This is a piece taken from daily Jewish liturgy. Over the generations, it has been put to about a gazillion different tunes--a great way to take up 6 hours of time! But more than entertainment, it provided comfort and peace--each and every time I reached the last words: "Hashem* li, v'lo ira" -- "G-d is with me, I shall not fear."
So whatever the Name you choose to call, whether it's in your own words, driven by feeling, accompanied by meaning or completely by rote, may you all find comfort, peace, and gratitude in having even a brief moment of conversation in prayer.
*To honor the commandment of not taking His name in vain, many Jews will use "Hashem," meaning literally, The Name, when quoting liturgy outside of actual prayer

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Teeny Tiny Taste of Torah: The Yoga of Sukkot

The 8-day holiday of Sukkot begins tonight at sundown. During this holiday, Jews around the world can be found eating their meals--and often sleeping as well--inside makeshift huts called sukkahs. Many families build a sukkah right in their own backyard, while others make visits to friends' homes or to their local shul (synagogue) to fulfill this mitzvah (commandment).
These next 8 days, which lead to the holiday of Simchat Torah, are a time of unity and joy for the Jewish people. So perhaps you are asking-- why the additional mention of the Yoga in this post? What does stretching yourself into a pretzel have to do with Sukkot or with Judaism at all for that matter? I would be so bold as to say a lot!
I've been stretching a great deal (pun intended) in both my Yoga practice as well as my Jewish observance. Through the last several years, I've often felt the 2 were mutually exclusive, if not at times completely opposing forces in my life. Judaism, it seemed, was about prayer, community-focus, and action in the world. Yoga, it seemed, was about solitude, self-focus, and escape from the world. Increased learning in both areas has led me to see how the 2 share many similarities and fit together quite nicely in my life.
This idea was made especially clear in my mind when I thought about some of the meaning behind Sukkot. Sukkot is a joyous time. We honor the season of harvest. We celebrate our unity as families, as communities, and as a people. And we do all this inside a wooden hut with at least 2 and a half walls, the ground as a floor and branches as a roof to provide essentially some shade, but not too much that you should not be able to see the stars of the night sky. What meaning is to be found in this ritual? We remember through this our ancestors who kept similar living conditions through their 40-year exodus from Egypt. We try to imagine the level of trust they must have had to maintain in G-d that they should make it to this supposed Promised Land they'd yet to see. It brings to mind the age-old toddler-on-a-road-trip question: "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? How 'bout now? Are we there yet???"
And deeper within that, is the very-Yogic concept of impermanence. We remember, honor and celebrate the impermanence of our material world: This harvest season that shall come and go. The temporary nature of the places we lovingly call home--shelter is very little more than some walls, a ground, and a roof. The people we meet along our way. Beyond that, we balance our need to both be insulated from this physical world and to exist within it--to still be able to see the stars of the night sky.
Often there is a sense of wistfulness when we think of things as temporary. We feel sad about the nature of something not lasting forever. Judaism and Yoga both call on us to bend beyond that immediate notion, and see the beauty in that which is temporary; to celebrate, sing, eat, sleep and be joyous in this moment.
Chag Sameach! May you and yours have a joyous Sukkot!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A Teeny Tiny Taste of Torah: Reflections on the High Holidays

The first 2 major Yom Tovim (holidays) of the Hebrew month of Tishrei have now come and passed. Rosh Hashanah was accompanied by slices of Washington State apples dipped in honey, delicious gluten free challah thanks to some very caring and talented friends, many scrumptious desserts not to mention the 3 days (since Rosh Hashanah was followed directly by Shabbat this year) of savory meals. This was the perfect opportunity for our waistbands to expand had we not all come down with a Post Rosh Hashanah Plague, which left me 4lbs lighter than before the holiday began! Even this unpleasant event, however, was tempered by the outpouring of kindness in my community as those who were able went out of their way to care for those who were lying in fetal positions upon the hard tile of their bathroom floors. Even those who were ill made sure to send messages of kindness and/or humor to their ailing compatriots. Then, before we knew it, candles were being lit to usher in Yom Kippur and Shabbat. I thought for sure that fasting would be easy this year compared to years past since I'd still not really regained my normal appetite and I had unintentionally given up most caffeine after last Sunday. I ended up having quite the migraine by late morning of Yom Kippur day, but was even able (between some kvetching) to find gratitude for the occasional waves of nausea that were taking my mind off of thoughts of food! With the fast ending at 7:02PM here, the last couple of hours really seemed to drag. My davening (prayer) began to feel a bit less focused and more forced.

But, there is an amazing thing that happens to me in that last hour. Suddenly, there is an unspeakable energy in the room. The sight of little kids eating cheese and crackers doesn't seem to bother me anymore. Even said little kids requesting cups of apple juice when I don't have enough spit left in my mouth to lick a finger and turn a page in the Machzor (prayer book for high holy days) doesn't sway my energy. And it's not the pending platters of smoked salmon, bagels, cream cheese, fruits, cakes and salads that have my focus at this point. I am truly feeling the "High" of the High Holy Days.
The sun was setting outside the synagogue window. Our night was drawing to a close. For the last few minutes before nightfall, there is singing and dancing and then silence--before the shofar sounds one last time and we all declare with astonishing energy:
"L'shanah haba'ah birushalyim!" Next Year In Jerusalem!
I have not always felt this high during the High Holidays. Despite being the one time of year the most Jews gather worldwide to go to synagogue, I feel like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have somewhat of a bad rep. There is a sense of somberness and palpable discomfort even in the mention of Yom Kippur, which translates to English as "Day of Atonement." We are asked to reflect and take personal inventory of the last year. We are told on Rosh Hashanah the Book of Life is opened and on Yom Kippur it is sealed; our fate for the following year is decided here and now. Who will live, who will die, who will be successful, who will struggle to make ends draws to mind an image of G-d sitting up there leafing through pages of humankind, placing a check mark here, a question mark there, an "x" there... Sounds unpleasant, no? So what is it that draws so many Jews of so many backgrounds--even self-proclaimed non-believers to gather in synagogue this time of year?
My dear friend purchased a copy of this book while on a trip to New York a few months ago. She shared a few excerpts with me over this holiday season, which I found to be quite meaningful and helpful. The author relates that on Yom Kippur, we are able to connect at the highest possible level with our Creator--a level we are not able to reach at any other time of year, not even on Shabbat. He also compares our relationship with G-d not to that of a master/slave or parent/child--but to a marriage, a partnership. It is as though we are standing under the chuppah (bridal canopy) on this day and joining with our Creator.

For me, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not a time of impending doom and gloom. It is not meant for me to harshly review and ruminate on each and every potential ill action of my past. It is a time for me to connect with my Creator and to connect with myself; for if G-d can forgive all people's transgressions for all time--both willful and unintentional--how much more important is it that I also find that level of compassion within to forgive others and to forgive myself. How much more meaningful would it be to join in this partnership or "marriage" with the sense of joy that such a simcha (celebration) would typically evoke!

And I do believe that deep within every Jew, that is what really brings us to sit--and more often, stand through hours upon hours of services on the High Holidays. We may call it by another name: "guilt," "obligation to family/children," "tradition/habit..." We may even get a little kvetchy around 5:00PM on Yom Kippur. But I cannot deny the incredible surge of emotion that hits me when I hear the first shofar blast of Rosh Hashanah. In that moment, I feel connected to G-d. I don't feel that 100% of the time throughout the year or throughout each day for that matter. That is the nature of a physical partnership, too. Our emotions ebb and flow in any relationship. We come close to another person, we drift away, we return; it is deep-seeded connection, however, that keeps us striving daily in our relationships to be better friends, better siblings, better children, and our best Selves.

May you all have a meaningful season and be inscribed for good & peace!