Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Tree and the Soil

Sometimes,  if I have some time to kill, especially on Shabbat mornings before services, I’ll grab one of a few books which tend to put my in an inspired, Shabbat-like frame of mind. One of them is I Asked for Wonder – a collection of sound-bites from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Recently, on such a morning, I came across this passage about prayer:

Prayer begins where expression ends. The words that reach Our lips are often but waves of an overflowing stream touching the shore. We often seek and miss, struggle and fail to adjust our unique feelings to the patterns of texts. Where is the tree that can utter fully the silent passion of the soil? Words can only open the door, and we can only weep on the threshold of our incommunicable thirst after the incomprehensible.

Prayer is exceedingly difficult, and I think it’s more so for any of us who are non-literal believers. If God is a entity with a personality and a will, who can grant me what I want (or can decide not to), then prayer becomes relatively straightforward: I can tell God something, or I can ask God for something, very much like I would a parent.

But, what if I don’t believe in that kind of God?* What is prayer, then? There are lots of answers, of course, but Heschel offers one powerful image.

* hint: I don’t.

Prayer, to Heschel, is supposed to be an expression of some deep, ineffable, existential feeling. Prayer is attempting to connect to something that we don’t really understand, but which we know is somehow essential. I love that image of the tree – in prayer, I am the tree, and God is the soil. My foundation, and the creator of me, but not something I can possibly comprehend, or apprehend, totally, or even adequately.

Just another musing, as I think about a class I have to teach on “Radical Non-Fundamentalism…”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Al Cheit – For the sins which we have committed…

Yom Kippur is upon us, and, of course, the dominant theme of the day is teshuvah – repentance. We are supposed to consider our sins and then (ideally, having already apologized to those whom we have wronged, and done our best to make restitution) confess them.

In addition to whatever private confessions we might be making, the liturgy contains repetitions of two communal confessionals. The longer of the two is the Al Cheit – it’s a long list of sins which we have committed*. Very often, that list feels a bit – this isn’t quite the right word – generic. It’s just a laundry list. Some of the sins resonate, while some don’t. Some I know I’ve committed. A few I know I didn’t. Many – well, I guess it depends on definitions and such. Anyway, the point is that, very often, for some of us, these public confessions feel a bit pro forma.

* It’s an interesting aside about what it means to confess in the plural – what it means to confess that, for example, we have gossiped, or that we have been stingy with tzedakah. For another time…)

In an attempt to get us to approach the vidui (the confessional prayers) with a bit more kavannah (focus and intention), The Forward, a Jewish magazine, asked various Jewish thinkers to propose some new sins to add. What sins should we be thinking about, as we prepare to ask God for forgiveness? It’s an interesting list, and well worth looking at before Yom Kippur begins on Friday night.

There’s a pretty good range of ideas here. The sin of pigeonholing other Jews:

Were all of us to make an effort to truly see one another — not challenge or change or even “bring closer,” but simply see, in the light of good will and ahavat yisrael — and connect in whatever way we can, we would begin to atone for a dangerous blindness that has plagued the Jewish world for too long.

And the sin of Tolerating Intolerance:

We belong to a small minority, once reviled for our beliefs. In our not so distant past, some Americans wanted to deny us the right to worship where and how we wanted. We had to plead our case to the larger public to win what we now assume to be our non-negotiable entitlement.

And more. Which of these speaks most strongly to you? What would you have added, had you been asked to contribute?

G’mar Chatima Tova – may you be sealed in The Book of Life.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Of Camels and Needles’ Eyes

Random “why am I thinking about this, as opposed to the quickly approaching High Holy Days?” teaching…

I've always been fascinated by the New Testament teaching, “it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle then for a rich man to enter heaven.” (Matthew 19:24) I find it interesting because the metaphor is so completely bizarre and obscure (I mean, is that more or less difficult than fitting an elephant through a paper towel roll? Just asking…), but the lesson is is almost as inscrutable to me.  Is it really impossible for a rich person to get into heaven?  Why should that be so?

I heard an explanation today (from a Rabbi Michael Oblath) which explains away both of these confusions. It seems that, in ancient walled cities, the main city gate (which was always large) would have a smaller door built into it. That way, if the gate needed to be opened for a single person, that smaller door could be used, and the larger, and much more difficult to open (and, much more assault-able) full gate could be left closed. And, as you might guess, the name for that smaller door-within-a-door was: a needle’s eye.

The needle’s eye was the size of a normal door, more or less. Which means that you or I could fit through it easily. But, a camel? That would be harder. It would have to be coaxed through and, in all likelihood, all of the various items which it was carrying would have to be jettisoned, at least temporarily. Even then, it might take some pushing and shoving to get the beast through.

Upshot? If you’re rich, you can still get into heaven. Just be prepared to put in some extra effort. And, don’t be surprised if you have to leave all of your stuff outside – it ain’t going in with you.

A great teaching from a Rabbi who probably had his High Holy Day sermons all done on time, a few thousand years ago.