Coping with the Leiby Kletzky a”h Tragedy, By Rabbi Asher Lopatin

July 15, 2011

The tragedy of the loss of such innocence looms over this Shabbat.  Last week the Berry family of Houston was in a tragic car accident where both parents died and two of the kids were left paralyzed, coming to Chicago for treatment.   Then we started this week with a “catastrophe, not a tragedy” with the fire at Kehillath Jeshurun on the East Side of New York, which destroyed only a shul, no humans or Torahs.  But we ended the week with a devastating tragedy, the murder of precious eight year old, Chasidishe boy in Borough Park.  I have to admit that I have had a hard time knowing how to react beyond just being sad, depressed and frustrated.  My iPhone is going wild from people on Facebook who cannot console themselves – but are trying – and speaking to rabbis, especially from New York, it feels that this is just a black, horrific moment.  But nothing is worse than just staring at black space, without being able to see a path from it, or through it.

One of my mentors helped me by reading a message in the tragedy: We are more vulnerable than we thought.   In the Jewish and Orthodox community we see Borough Park as a safe enclave, working hard to protect itself from any of the evils of the outside world.  That is the view the world has as well of this heavily Orthodox part of Brooklyn, New York.  But we also used to think that spousal abuse and child abuse didn’t occur in the Orthodox, frum community – or, even amongst Jews at all.   We now know better that everything in the general community makes its ugly appearance in the Orthodox community as well.  Sad, unfortunate, but true.  And now we know, tragically, that murderous, insane, monsters are there as well: they go to the dentist, they go to weddings, they live amongst normal people.  No one is safe, and the same rules that we teach children about not following strange looking people and not doing strange acts with strange people have to apply to not following even safe looking people.  Frum children need to know they should not do anything they are uncomfortable with even with frum looking people, even with relatives or teachers.  If we thought we knew this, and this tragedy brings it all out again in the saddest, clearest way.

It would be comfortable to feel there are no murderers, crazies, molesters, abusers amongst us, to be lulled by the blessings of Bilam, where he sees the Children of Israel as sinless, blameless, completely loyal to God and perfect in their ethical way of life.  But we know better.  We know that the blessings of Bilam are an ideal, and the perfect, safe frum community, insulated from any negative elements is a fantasy as well.  We have to be realists.

Yet,  I hope, I pray,  we do not lose our innocence.  The innocence of an eight year old boy wanting to be a big boy and walk home alone from camp…  Experts can argue over what is the earliest age to allow a kid to walk home from camp, but everyone who has been a kid, can feel for these parents who relented and finally let Leiby, a”h, walk home on his own.  Oy!  May Hashem allow this family, and all of our families, to hold on to that innocence and love, which makes us do things that sometimes we regret, but come from the most beautiful, loving, caring place.

So I ask for Hashem to give our community  the hard-headed realism to be more responsible to ferret out abusers and molesters– or attempted molesters – who may have slipped through our system, maybe because they were not reported directly to the police, or because the local Batei Dinim have been too lenient and protective of “respected” members of the community accused of such crimes.  However, at the same time , may God give us the strength to retain some of that innocence, some of  the trust we need to reach out even to the stranger.  Can we ever regain that trust or innocence?  With God’s help we can, and we the help of our community child-safety experts we can do so in a way that allows us to keep our children as safe and secure as humanly possible.

This is a world where the most innocent and precious people are vulnerable to the most vicious, evil and perverted minds.  Let us ask Hashem to allow us to fight that evil, while allowing us to retain our innocence and our belief and trust in the world God has given us.  Not easy, almost impossible, but that is at the core of our “emuna”,  our belief in an infinite and caring God.

May God bind the innocent, blessed soul of Leiby Kletzky in the bonds of everlasting life, and may the memory of his sweet life be a blessing to our entire world, which today is full of so much sadness and grief.

 

Asher Lopatin


A Plea for True Respect for Arabs and Muslims by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 17, 2011

Rav Yosef, my good friend and a rabbi I respect deeply, misunderstands my motivation in holding off on a prayer for Egypt.  I certainly am frustrated with the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East.  However, my main point is that we need to stop pandering and patronizing the Arabs and Muslims throughout the world, and actually show some respect to them.  They can face the challenges of their past just as well as Jews and Christians can: the anti-Semitic elements of their religion, which need to be re-understood just as Judaism and Christianity evolved in their understanding of the “other”; the discriminatory treatment of the Jews in Arab and Muslim lands throughout  history; the abominable attitude of the Arab leadership, trade unions and professional organizations toward the State of Israel – even in Jordan and Egypt; the leaders and mobs who pressured Great Britain not to allow Jews to enter Palestine when faced with murder and destruction in Europe – and even after the Holocaust before the rise of the State of Israel.  I respect the Arabs and Muslims, and I think they are capable of rising to the challenge of becoming an enlightened people, a part of the developed world.  Yes, they need democracy,  and that means a different attitude towards women – we in the West need to work on that as well – and toward homosexuals and other “others” in their midst.  Yes, I think the Palestinians can advance to the point where selling land to a Jew is not a capital offense, nor is a gay person forced to hide their identity.

People from developed countries throughout the world come to Israel to learn agriculture, science and to share in Israel’s rich culture.  I do expect Arabs to learn from Israel as well.  It is their loss, their sad loss, and certainly the Palestinians loss, that they have spent nearly 63 years fighting Israel instead of teaming up with Israel. The protesters in Tienanmen Square erected a model of the Statue of Liberty; they understood that America stands for freedom and liberty.  In Egypt, protesters put Jewish stars on Mubarak to show how much they hated him – how sad that they did not understand that Israel represents their ticket to freedom, democracy and a thriving, open economy, rather than the evil they need to eternally fight.

No, I am not angry, I am waiting: I am waiting for the Egyptians to rise to the challenge and to be the human beings they can be.  The prophets understood that they can be a great people.  But unless we challenge them to pursue truth, not just populism, and unless we ourselves admit to that truth, we are not respecting them and treating them as our equals.    They are God’s children just like we in the West are God’s children, and I have every expectation that I place on myself and my own religion.

I pray that we stop pandering and patronizing and start respecting our Arab and Muslims brothers in a way that allows them to enter a new era of truth and good.  When that happens, I will be the first to say a Shehechiyanu.  Until then, I pray for us to be strong, and never to compromise or ask others to compromise the values that have given us our freedom and our liberty.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Rediscovering Prayer –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 4, 2010

Perhaps I speak only for myself but I think generally we have lost the concept of prayer.  The upside of prayer in the Orthodox community is that we do it often.  But this is also the downside.  As a result of the commonness of our prayer I think, at least for me, prayer often can become the saying of words, the recitation of formulas, the fulfilling of an obligation.

 

The gemara (Berachot 29b)has an interesting instruction for prayer that may help us:

“Rabbi Eliezer says: One who makes their prayer fixed (kevah, which prayer should not be) their prayer is not beseeching/prayerful (tachanunim).   What does “fixed prayer” mean?  Rabbi Yaakov the son of Rav Idi said in the name of Rabbi Oshiyah, (a fixed prayer is)“anyone who feels their prayer to be something which must be carried” (Rash”i- as an obligation to be fulfilled), The Rabbis say, “Anyone who does not pray in words of tachanunim” (Shulchan Aruch- tachanunim is like a poor person asking for alms in pleasant language), Rabah and Rav Yosef said together, “(a prayer is called fixed) If one is not able to say something new in it.”

 

It seems from the Talmud there are 3 factors in making prayer what it should be (in fact some achronim say that one who prays kevah,  a prayer which is fixed, has not prayed at all (Elyah Raba, Magen Giborim, et al).  To review the three factors in the gemara above which make prayer what it should be are:

  1. How we feel about the prayer.  If we see prayer as a chiuv, an obligation to be fulfilled like other mitzvoth, instead of as a conversation with God.
  2. The language with which we pray. If we read words from a book, instead of speaking like one person to another in nice language and tone.
  3. If we read the siddur and do not say anything new in each prayer.

 

Since we are different every day we must in our conversation  with God, insert words of our own.  This should be done, the poskim say, in the middle 13 berachot of the amidah.  In at least one beracha and some say in all of the berachot, we should speak to God about and ask for what we personally and our people and world generally need at that moment.

 

I personally have found that numbers 1 and 2 are hard to control but 3 is more doable.   It is hard to pray 3 times a day without feeling it obligatory, hard to see God as a personal Deity in conversation.  But I find that by beginning with number 3, in my very small way, that numbers 1 and 2 sometimes develop.   Try it.   Next time you daven, in each of the middle 13 berachot of the amidah talk to God about what you need pertaining to that blessing just before the chatimah, the ending of the paragraph.   Talk to God about what the world and Jewish people need.  If you can do it in Hebrew that’s great but English is ok too.

 

This mode of beseeching, of seeing God as a parent from whom we request what we personally need rather than an infinite Deity before whom to laude, is the real path of Jewish prayer, as the Talmud said long ago.  Don’t worry about it taking you too long to daven, it will become something that at least sometimes you will look forward to and will change everything.

 


Standing Together: Chicago’s Muslims Stand with her Jews, by Rabbi Lopatin

November 1, 2010

Friends,

 

I have worked over the years with building Jewish-Muslim relations in Chicago by co-chairing the Jewish Muslim Community Building Initiative of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a social justice organization.  Our shul has hosted every year an Iftar meal for Muslims to break their Ramadan fast and to come together – after Jews davening Mincha and Ma’ariv and the Muslims  praying their Salat (in the JCC) – in camaraderie and friendship.  We learn during the year, frequently with a rabbi and an imam presenting their own respective religion’s take on a biblical/Q’ur’anic story or an issue such as health care.  The letter below is from the head of the largest Muslim organization in Chicago, which includes the diversity of the Muslim community – Arabs and non-Arabs – and even the controversial CAIR-Chicago.  I think the letter speaks for itself:

(CHICAGO- OCTOBER 29, 2010) – The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago stands with our faith partners and the Jewish community in condemning the recent terrorist act to send explosives through cargo airlines to Jewish organizations in Chicago.

President Barack Obama declared today that authorities had uncovered a “credible terrorist threat” against the United States following the overseas discovery of U.S.-bound packages containing explosives aboard cargo jets. President Obama said both had been addressed to Jewish organizations in the Chicago area.

“We are thankful to our law enforcement agencies to uncover this plot before it could cause any harm,” said Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairperson of the Council. “Illinois Muslims stand united with our Jewish partners and organizations in condemning this terrorist and heinous act. There is no place in Islam for terrorizing innocent people or spreading mayhem.”

“We urge our fellow citizens to stay alert and cooperate with law enforcement agencies,” said Mohamad Nasir, executive director of the Council. “This is our duty. One of the best ways to fight the perverted message of terrorists and protect our homeland is to affirm our patriotism through civic work, interfaith action and voting in large numbers on November 2nd.”

Peace has not broken out in the world, and Jews and Israel still have our enemies who wish to destroy us at any opportunity.  But at least we have come to the point where the local Jewish and Muslim communities can work together as “faith partners”.  Words do mean something, and the words are sweet.


Bread And Butter Orthodoxy – Rabbi Barry Gelman

February 16, 2010

Modern Orthodox Jews have a tendency to offer pronouncements on controversial issues. Some of those issues are the definition of orthodox, the ordination of orthodox women and the place of homosexuals in the orthodox community.

As I have noted before, it seems that these issues and other “hot button” items exercise the emotions of many within the modern orthodox camp. These issues are important; my concern is that they tend to overshadow the “bread and butter” of Orthodox Judaism.

There are many who are quick to make bold statements on either side of the big issues, but who are silent and absent when it comes to Tefilla B’ Tzibbur (davening with a minyan each day) and regular Torah study.

There are two things about this pretense that concern me.

  1. It does not ring true: Our brothers and sisters to our right mock us (rightfully?) when we pronounce on issues while we do not “walk the walk” of Orthodoxy. What good is all the talk if our Modern Orthodox statements are not backed up by Orthodox living?

 

  1. We believe our own hype: Spending our time making declaration on these issues blinds us from the more important fundamental aspects of Orthodox life and leave us believing that as long as we are on the correct side of the argument on the cutting edge issue, even as we fail to excel in the primary and essential aspects of Judaism, we are OK.

We need to redirect our energies so others will take us seriously and so we can take ourselves seriously.


Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 27, 2009

I know this is not my regular posting day but I wanted to make some Kavanot 0 prayer enhancers available before Yom Kippur.

Gmar Tov,

 Barry

 

 

Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer

The Yom Kippur davening is challenging in that it is very busy ,full of choreography and very long.

Some find it difficult to focus and create moments of quiet introspection.

Do not feel rushed to keep up. It is more important to internalize the prayers.

The Yom Kippur Mussaf is an amalgam of prayers with High Holiday themes as well as recreations of the Temple service, mourning dirges and the account of the Ten Martyrs.

Use this guide during the silent Mussaf Amidah or the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah to help you focus on the prayer themes.  Various sections of Mussaf will be briefly described followed by some questions to help us focus on each theme.

Instead of talking to your neighbor when the service starts to feel too heavy, use this sheet to redirect your thoughts.

Fasting:

Did you ever wonder why we are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur? How can fasting help us return to God? The Torah considers the Yom Kippur fast an act of affliction. One the one fasting makes perfect sense. A day on which we are judged is hardly a day on which to be concerned with food.

Perhaps we can consider the idea of self denial a positive spiritual practice. On Yom Kippur fasting reminds us that it is very often the material aspects of our lives and the need to supply them (like food and shelter) that take us away from spiritual pursuits. On Yom Kippur we are told not to worry about food and we find outselves under the protection of the synagogues. With our basic needs either cared for or removed we can focus on spirituality.

Fasting may also remind us that we have the capacity to survive with far less than we usually have.

 

Ask yourself:

  • How does fasting help me attain a deeper spirituality on Yom Kippur?
  • Would Yom Kippur “work” the same if we were allowed to eat? If not, what added benefit does fasting bring?

 

Mussaf Amidah

 

Seder Ha-Avodah (Description of the Temple Service)

We recite or even re-enact the temple service that cannot be performed today because of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. It is not really a prayer, but rather a detailed description, in poetic terms  of what used to happen in the Temple.

 

What purpose does the Seder Ha-Avodah serve?

  • To keep alive the ancient tradition in a vivid way
  • To reassure us that even in the absence of the Temple service we can achieve forgiveness and closeness to God
  • Create a longing for the Beit HaMikdash.

The seder ha-avodah is introduced with a magnificent prologue  – essentially a brief summary of Jewish History from creation to the Temple service.

There is heavy concentration on God’s interaction with and direction of the world in the prologue. Perhaps this is to indicate the cosmic importance of the Avodah.  Consider the “path” of the prologue: descent to sin thought Adam and Chavah, Cain and the generation of the flood and the subsequent ascent from Noach to Avraham to Yaakov and his sons – from whom came Levi, eventually entrusted with the service of the Beit Hamikdash.

 

Ask Yourself:

  • Has the progress of the spirituality  expressed in the prologue continued? Do we live in an age where people feel connected to God? Do I feel connected to God? If not, why not?

 

Rabbi Solovetichik defined spirituality as: “the descent of divinity into the midst of the concrete world.” Perhaps the recitation of the Temple service is supposed to give us a chance to relive the divine descent as the Yom Kippur service represented the pinnacle of divine revelation as the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies.

 

Ask Yourself:

  • How can I experience the Divine descent?
    • Choose one area in life that you will work on this year in order to be more God aware.

The section of the Temple service ends on a celebratory note when we say: “True – how majestic was the Kohen Gadol as he left the Holy of Holies in peace, without injury. “

“Why The Happiness in reciting  the end of the Temple service? Why was it sung with such a happy tune? The answer is that the Kohen Gadol reflected the radiance of God. Throught witnessing the radiant appearance of the Kohen Gadol, there could be no doubt of God’s acceptance of the prayers of the children of Israel” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik).

 

Ask yourself:

  • Who in my life helps me feel like I am in the presence of God? What experiences have I had where I truly felt like I was in God’s presence? How can I recreate those moments?

 

The Ten Martyrs

Immediately after the joy of reciting the Avodah, we recite mourning dirges. “Suddenly Yom Kippur is transformed in to the Ninth of Av, the morning reaching its most intense point when we read of the ten martyrs.

 

What role do these dirges play on Yom Kippur?

  • Perhaps we are pleading to God: “We have suffered enough. Put an end to our torments and tormentors. Show mercy not only by forgiving us but by bring complete redemption.
  • We remind ourselves of a sin not listed in the long list of “al chet” – the admission that our sins have extended the state of the destruction and delayed redemption.

 

Ask Yourself

  • How does the contrast of the joy and the mourning enhance our prayer experience? What does it take to fully appreciate what we had and what we lost? How can I be more appreciative this year of the people and blessings in my life?

“The startling contrast of the joy of the avodah recitation and the pain evoked by reciting the mourning dirges immediately following serve a basic cognitive purpose. In order to truly feel a loss, a person must internalize two key points:  1) how wonderful life was before the loss and 2) hoe terrible life is after the loss. In the words of Jeremiah: “Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old” (Eicha 1:7). (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik)

Ten Martyrs: What Are You Willing To Die For?

The inclusion of the Ten Martyrs in the Yom Kipur prayers is noteworthy. Why is it included and whay it is supposed to add to our prayer experience? Perhaps the inclusion of the Ten Martyrs is supposed to help us focus on what is really important in life by compelling us to ask ourselves: asking: What are we willing to die for? These sages were willing to give their lives for Torah and Jewish life. What are our ultimate values?

Perhaps we are asked to judge what is really important in life by the answer to the question of what are we willing to die for.

Is there anyone who would willingly sacrifice his life for wealth? Or honor? For a high position? On the contrary: We would readily give up all this in order to buy health… On the other hand, are there not mothers who would sacrifice even their own lives for the life of their children? Aren’t there many who would die for freedom and peace?

Ask yourself:

What are my ultimate values? How are they similar or different to those of the ten martyrs?


Why are we so childish when it comes to Yom Kippur?

September 25, 2009

Yom Kippur will arrive this week and thousands of Jews will attend synagogues.  Why is it that so many attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, but not the rest of the year?  What is it about Yom Kippur that draws us?  No doubt because it is a holy day, we want to be present.  But many of us are just hedging our bets.  If we have a bad year we don’t want to have to kick ourselves for not participating in Yom Kippur as we should have.  If we go on Yom Kippur and pray with sincerity at least we will not have ourselves to blame for whatever bad happens.   We will have done what we could.

For many of us even quite religious Jews who go to synagogue every day or every Sabbath, this kind of thinking is still part and parcel of our Yom Kippur.  Some of the liturgy in fact serves to reinforce it, such as the Unisaneh Tokef –which hinges on,“Who live and who will die?”  But such an approach is a very selfish take on the holiest day of the year.  If I am going to pray on Yom Kippur just so that I can have a good year it’s really just about me and my physical welfare, its really just selfishness.

As Morethodox Jews I think we need to turn to the Chassidic commentaries to reclaim the true nature of Yom Kippur.   Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger in his book the Sefat Eemet says that the phrase, which we repeat many times in this season, “Remember us for life God who wants life, and write us in the book of life for your sake, living God” means that we are asking not for lengthened physical life, but rather for the life of the spirit.

Rabbi Levy Yizchak of Bardichev, in his book the Kedushat Levi, asks why we beseech God to write us in the book of life and to remember us, is God is a person who remembers and writes?  God is God, and furthermore no evil can come from God, only goodness.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak answers by way of a mashal, a metaphor.  He says it is akin to putting a piece of cloth in the sun.  If it is a white cloth it will reflect the light, if it is a black cloth it will absorb the light, if it is a red cloth it will reflect the red color of the light, if blue the blue waves of the light.  The sunlight does not change, only the cloths are different.

So too there is a flow coming from the Eternal One all the time.  It is a flow of goodness and it is our job on Yom Kippur to become people who can absorb the light for goodness.  We are not trying to change God’s mind, God is infinite.  We are not pulling the wool over God’s eyes trying to convince him that we are more religious than we are by coming to shul on yom Kippur, or hoping that somehow that our prayer will magically help us to have a good year.  No, Yom Kippur is the process of changing ourselves, changing our own colors so that we can receive the Divine light that is always flowing for goodness.  God does not change.  Only we change.  May we all change for the better this Yom Kippur.


Tzedakah and Chesed: Preparing for the Month of Elul by, Rosh Kehilah Dina Najman, Marta d’Atra of KOE (Kehilat Orach Eliezer in Manhattan, NY)

August 13, 2009

Very often, Rosh Hashana comes along and I find myself thinking:  How did the month of Elul come and go so quickly – I feel that I did not utilize my time adequately to prepare myself to stand before HaKadosh Baruch Hu on Yom haDin?

In that vein, as we are m’varchin haChodesh this coming Shabbat for the month of Elul, I would like to get a head start by focusing on a central phrase in the Yamim Noraim liturgy.

The climax of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is the final statement which we declare out loud together:

 “וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה “

“Repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree.”

The Rambam, Maimonides, in his Moreh Nevuchim, Guide to the Perplexed, 3:53, explains:  הביטוי צדקה גזור מן צדק.  The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek, which means justice. 

The Rambam further explains that the essence of this concept is granting to everyone that to which they have right or giving every being that which corresponds to their merits.

 

Tzedakah therefore, according to the Rambam, is generally considered charity in the sense of providing for the basic needs of one who is lacking financially, according to what is due to them.

 

Tzedakah is often connected to a related concept, that of chesed, or gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.  Chesed can generally be described as giving in excess what is required. That is, doing something for someone to whom one has no obligation or doing something for someone one who deserves it, but in a greater measure than is warranted.

Thus, the contrast between tzedakah and chesed is that tzedakah is an act of beneficence toward another person who deserves or merits what is given to them and when the giver has no obligation to them.  With chesed, the giver also does not have an obligation to the individual to which she gives, but that individual receives in excess of their merit.

The Rabbis compared these two concepts in the Gemara (Sukkah 49b)

בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה, צדקה – בממונו, גמילות חסדים – בין בגופו בין בממונו. צדקה – לעניים, גמילות חסדים – בין לעניים בין לעשירים. צדקה – לחיים, גמילות חסדים – בין לחיים בין למתים.

 

Acts of chesed are greater that tzedakah in three ways: tzedakah is accomplished with one’s money, chesed is accomplished through money or through other actions.  Tzedakah is for the poor whereas chesed can be for the poor or for the wealthy.  Tzedakah is only for the living whereas chesed can be for the living or for those who have died.

If this is the case that chesed is a much deeper and more comprehensive act of good, why is it that we declare:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה?

Why don’t we say together:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּחֶסֶד מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה?

One way to explain the choice of tzedakah is based on the ideas of Rav Yosef Baer Soloveitchik who explains that tzedakah is an integral part of the teshuva (repentance), process.  Although the Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16b) derives this principle from a verse in Psalms, the Rav chooses to refer back to the chet ha-eigel, the sin of the golden calf.  Part of the teshuva process for the Jewish people was their monetary contribution to the mishkan, the tabernacle.  In response to their sin, B’nei Yisrael began building the sanctuary which would be the focal point of their connection with God.  They were required to donate to this project.  The Rav further explains the connection between teshuva and tzedakah by noting the there is an element of selfishness in transgression.  Some form of personal benefit has been given precedence over religious and social principles. 

The Torah describes the half shekel which everyone was obligated to donate to the mishkan as a kofer, a ransom.  It is as if to say that one who has sinned is held captive and must be redeemed through giving.

 

Tzedakah therefore, is a means of demonstrating compassion, responsibility, and a willingness to share.  For this reason, forgiveness from God can only be obtained when tzedakah accompanies the teshuva process.

Following this understanding of the connection of tzedakah to teshuva, we can offer another understanding as to why the High Holiday liturgy emphasizes tzedakah as opposed to chesed.  The monetary obligations of tzedakah are limited and are directed soley to the poor.  The halachah has a rich body of laws outlining the amounts of tzedakah one is required to give in response to different situations. 

The legal duties of one’s personal involvement in gemilut chessadim are without restrictions.  The process of teshuva, of return, would be that much more difficult if part of that process was a mitzvah, a mandate, which was in effect at all times, to all people and in all situations.

 

Tzedakah, as I mentioned above, is intimately bound to teshuva and can be an expression of our commitment to return.  It is a mitzvah in and of itself which is at the foundation of a Jewish community. The community, as well as the indivudual, has a responsibility to those in need.  The giving of tzedakah is considered a fundamental part of being human such that even one who receives tzedakah due to their need still is required to give tzedakah themselves.

 

The Maharal, Rav Yehuda Louwe, in his work Nitivot Olam, expands upon the difference between tzedakah and gemilut chesed. Tzedakah is judged by the recipient.  The magnitude of the need will determine the degree of assistance to alleviate the need. Chesed on the other hand, is to be judged by the giver — the quality of caring that a person is capable of will determine the nature and degree of the remedy.

Tzedakah is sparked by the demands of compassion. One cannot bear to see a person suffering, so one is compelled by a sense of sympathy to help the other. If that present need did not exist, there would be no compassion necessary and no charity given.

Chesed requires a broader, more sensitive heart and a generosity of spirit to be integrated into one’s personality.  Chesed then, will not be a reaction forthcoming only in response to sadness.  It will be an ever-present quality which will anticipate needs, understand other’s limitations, search for solutions and initiate acts of benevolence, even when unstated or un-noticed by the recipient.

This year will present financial challenges for many.  Please keep these individuals, families and communities in mind even though we all may feel the burden of our country’s economic difficulites.  There  are many in need of tzedakah.  However, help can also come in the form of chesed.  Assistance need not only be financial, it can come in the form of helping people save money, donating one’s time and energy and sharing one’s resources.

 

Next week we will mark the beginning of the month of Elul and with it, the formal beginning of our spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  If our hearts and eyes are open we will see the many opportunities for tzedakah and chesed before us.  Through our actions may we merit compassion from the One who is compassionate.  Wishing us all a productive and meaningful chodesh Elul.


Takes Many Spiritual Tools to Connect to an Infinite God –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 10, 2009

On Prayer and Meditation

My first post on Morethodoxy, entitled “Openness and Passion,” outlined what I perceive to be an important process in living the Torah, being able to adopt the strengths one finds in each community and in the so many different approaches to mitzvoth and Torah, even if they are not our own primary practice. Custom is a powerful thing in Judaism, but sometimes stolidness can be spiritually detrimental.

I think that for many people, Jewish and not, prayer has become a recitation of words.   Several frum (observant) people who take davening (prayer) seriously have commented to me, “I like learning Torah and find it meaningful, but I just can’t relate, beyond the level of fulfilling an obligation, to tefilah (prayer).”

The Talmud (Berachot 32b) tells us that the Chasidim Harishonim, the Ancient Pious Ones, used to wait an hour before prayer (to prepare), pray for an hour, and take an hour after prayer (to recover?;  to return to this world?). They did it three times a day, and in fact the Talmud says we are obligated to do this also.

This prayer system does not sound like ours.  We rush in, pray to fulfill our obligation, perhaps concentrate a bit on its meaning and before whom we are praying, and finish.   It does not take us an hour to prepare or in fact any time to come down.  I am not, God forbid, criticizing the many Jews who are sincere about prayer and make great sacrifices to pray with a minyan at correct times or on their own.  I am no expert at or Tzadik in regard to prayer.  But I think that the Talmud’s ancient method of prayer may have been entirely unlike ours.

I imagine a prayer that takes an hour of preparation and an hour to come back is one that is highly meditative.  Kavvanah, the intent that is required in Jewish prayer, is sometimes understood as just understanding what the words mean or knowing that one is standing before the Almightily, but I think the Talmud here is offering us an important tool that reaches beyond the standard level of kavvanah in Jewish law.  Perhaps prayer is not supposed to be just saying words.  Perhaps prayer and the kavvanah that was seen in the time of the Talmud, as a prerequisite for prayer (one did not pray for three days after traveling according to the Talmud since we might lack concentration, Aruvin 65a), is something much more.

Judaism contains many spiritual tools that are often ignored if they are not part of our own personal or community’s customary practice.   There is a tradition of meditation in Judaism.  Clearly when it comes to prayer there was something deeper going in the Talmud that we have lost.  Even latter in Jewish history we have for instance Rav Nachman of Breslov’s instructions regarding prayer and meditation.  That one should go to the forest, preferably at night, and there speak to God in one’s own words (Torah 52).

I think we must reclaim some of Judaism’s spiritual tools.   In the Orthodox community we sometimes, in our punctiliousness, (and probably in reaction to Reform Judaism) allow the ma’aseh hamitzvah (the act of performing the mitzvah) to overshadow the inner kavvanah (intent), and the perhaps the telos of the mitzvah -connecting with God.

Let us be open to taking a closer look at the spiritual tools that exist within Judaism, even if they are not our own or those of our immediate community or custom; even if they feel foreign.  I would even suggest that sometimes there are Jewish spiritual tools that have become inaccessible or lost to us, such as meditation, and that it may take learning them in a non-Jewish context that has cultivated them well, in order to readapt them into Judaism.