On Taking Down the Sukkah: A Prayer, by Yosef Kanefsky

October 3, 2018

There’s something about taking down the Sukkah. It conjures up that phrase from the book of Yonah: “It appeared overnight, and is gone overnight”.  It is reminiscent of the final scene of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in which, when the marquee in front of the movie theater is changed, the entire story in which the characters had been living and dreaming disappears as if it never was. Yes, a lot happened in the Sukkah this year. Lots of family, and friends, and even guests whom I was meeting for the first time. A lot of joy and laughter. But when the last bundle of bamboo poles came to rest on the table in the tool shed…… “poof!”

It’s not completely “poof” of course. Memories remain, and all the friendships endure, strengthened and nourished.  Yet something is irretrievably gone, never to return exactly the way it was. A year from now we’ll build the Sukkah again. It will look very familiar to be sure. But it won’t be identical.

Taking down the Sukkah feels to me like it ought to be a time of prayer.

God of our fathers and mothers: As the footprint that had been the Sukkah has returned to being just another corner of the backyard, my wife and I thank you for what our family’s Sukkah held this year. For the first time, it held not just one daughter-in-law, but two. And it held not just three generations, but four, as my father-in-law caressed his first great-grandchild beneath its schach. Our Sukkah this year was truly one of the Clouds of Glory, God. How can I repay all of Your kindnesses?

In the same breath though, I ask that you send healing of the body and spirit to my mother, who for the first time was unable to make the trip to be with us. I know that a person who is ill is exempt from the Sukkah, but that doesn’t mean that her absence isn’t felt.  

God, I do not mean this in a melodramatic way, but as I take down take down the Sukkah I always find myself asking, “Who will return to our Sukkah next year? Which of our children will be in town to help me put the sukkah up, and which of them will be many miles away, hopefully doing wonderful things wherever they are? What will be the state of the world the next time we take shelter beneath Your wings, in our sacred temporary dwelling? What will remain the same, and what will change?

I pose these questions only to You. For it is You who causes the winds of time to blow, and the rains of blessing to fall.

Simhat Yom Tov Can be a Hard Mitzva to Observe. By: Rabbi Dan Margulies

September 27, 2018

Arguably the most important mitzva of the holiday season, and one which can be incredibly difficult for many people to actualize is the mitzva to be happy: “Vesamahta behagekha” (Devarim 16:14). It is a mitzva that usually finds its contemporary halakhic expression in physical (over-)indulgences e.g. food (Orah Hayim 529:1), alcohol (ibid.), fashion (529:2), and travel to Israel (Yerushalmi Hagiga 75d 1:1, Tosafot Hagiga 2a, see R’ Shimshon Nadel). Obviously there are ways to enjoy all of these things appropriately and in the proper moderation, but I hope equally as obviously, the celebration of the holiday and our expression of joy must transcend these physical indulgences.

Another avenue through which diaspora Ashkenazi Jews express this happiness is finally taking the opportunity (only 13 times per year!) to perform a mitzva that is really incumbent daily—for the kohanim to raise their hands and recite birkat kohanim (Rambam, intro. to Hikhot Tefila) and for the assembled congregation to hear and receive that blessing (Sefer Haredim 4:18, Beur Halakha 128). The rationale behind the origins of its customary omission, despite our general desire to perform as many mitzvot as possible as often as possible, is much debated (cf. Orah Hayim 128:44, Arukh Hashulhan 128:63-64), but most theories mention a desire on the part of the kohanim to be permeated with a strong sense of happiness when giving the blessing. It would have been impossible for a working-man to achieve the necessary sense of bliss any time other that the holidays.

I was recently asked, if we diaspora Ashkenazim avoid inviting the kohanim to pronounce the blessing until the holidays when we are commanded to be happy i.e. Yom Tov, why do we not have them say it on hol hamoed as well.

I think that in the experience of most contemporary American Orthodox Jews, the period of hol hamoed presents serious challenges to their ability to feel fully permeated with the happiness that halakha requires. The preparations necessary for the celebration of the week-long hagim which usually include laundry, shopping, cooking, cleaning, hosting, scheduling, and childcare are incredibly demanding. In addition, the inflexibility of many people’s jobs and their vacation policies make it so that the permissions under halakha to work during hol hamoed (work that has a pressing deadline, or which for ignoring it one will incur a major financial loss, cf. Orah Hayim 533, 536, 537) which were originally conceived of as accomodations for rare circumstances have come to apply to a larger percentage of people’s regular work. In ends up that besides all the additional preparations, people do not even have the entire week off to celebrate.

My gut tells me that this contemporary experience is not new. Of course the modern economy and the range of professions common among observant families have changed the dynamic somewhat, but I think that even centuries ago, when the minhagim surrounding the recitation and omission of birkat kohanim developed, many people were struggling with the same types of work/life balance and felt the need to work on hol hamoed for a variety of defensible reasons. I think that the omission of birkat kohanim on hol hamoed speaks to this exact problem, and I hope it provides some consolation for the modern family to know that we are not the first ones who can find it difficult to fully immerse ourselves into the joy and celebration of the holidays; our ancestors struggled with this too and they enshrined their struggle in the minhagim that they passed down to us today.

Further, on the holidays when our time is stretched thin, I hope that we can still scrape together the time and the peace of mind to really rejoice, to experience the mitzvot of the sukka, lulav, matza etc. and the mitzva to celebrate as Hakadosh Barukh Hu intends, and to channel that happiness into the mitzva of birkat kohanim, and the weeks ahead.

Centering – By: Rabba Claudia Marbach

September 17, 2018

As the holiday season comes around again, I have been thinking about centering.

As a part-time potter, I spent this past summer with my hands covered with beautiful white porcelain clay. It is smooth, pure and notoriously finicky. Any wheel-thrown object begins with the challenge of centering the clay on the wheel. This may sound and look simple, but it is not. If the wheel is going too fast, the clay will fly off the wheel. If the wheel is too slow, the clay can torque and kink and no amount of pressure will get it centered again.

The muscle memory of where my hands should be and how much pressure to apply is critical. But even more important is my mental state. If I am anxious or distracted or angry, the clay will refuse to be centered. As one potter said: “Try to bully the clay with strength, not stillness, and it turns into a guided missile rather than a bowl.” Sometimes there are days when I am so distracted or stressed that I have to step away from the clay altogether. Other days I close my eyes and just feel the clay into center.

So in order to center I have to bring myself into center. In this moment in history, centering is a very hard project. The phone pings, emails come in, ads for this and that. Too much to do, too much to read, too much to care about, too much to be angry about, too much distraction. All the “too much” makes it hard to find the center. If I can’t find the center then it is too hard to do the creative work of making the bowl – or too hard pray in any meaningful way – not to mention creating a thoughtful, intentional life. I can just go round and round and then spin out of control.

But when I do get the clay to center, I take a breath and decide upon a form. A moment of choice.  Rabbi Abraham Twerski said that teshuva is about learning to take a breath before acting. In that moment of breath we choose our next act. A bowl, pitcher or plate? Be kinder? Listen before reacting? Forgive? As Mary Oliver asked in her poem The Summer Day: “What will you do with this one wild and precious life?”

Once centered we can begin to be creative, in imitation of  God. We can really be alive. As MC Richards says in her book Centering, “”The centering experience is an experience in the soul, whether we get it primarily through hands or eyes or imagination, and this is its compelling strategy. When we are on center, we experience reality in depth rather than in partition.”(p. 53)

My favorite metaphor of the Yamim Noraim, you won’t be surprised to hear, reads:

כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר  

בִּרְצוֹתוֹ מַרְחִיב וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ מְקַצֵּר

כֵּן אֲנַחְנוּ בְיָדְךָ חֶסֶד נוֹצֵר

לַבְּרִית הַבֵּטוְאַל תֵּפֶן  לַיֵּצֶר

Like clay in the potter’s hands

expanded or contracted at will

So are we in Your hand, Creator of kindness.

Look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser/evil inclination.

The paytan asserts that God has the power to form and shape us and our future. God is the Yotzer or Creator, fashioning us from clay.  Just as we attempt to center ourselves and ignore our own inner critical voices we ask God to do the same in judging us.  We hope that God filters out the noise, listening and looking at us truly. As God says in Bamidbar 14:20:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ סָלַ֖חְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶֽךָ׃ And the LORD said, “I pardon, as you have asked.”

The Yamim Noraim are a time to look for the center. Amidst the noise in our lives, we are asked to put everything aside and look inward and take stock of ourselves. What have we done with our one wild and precious life? How can we make it right? How, like God, can we do that with chessed – loving -kindness – both towards ourselves and other? May you be blessed with finding your center year, more often than not. G’mar Hatimah Tovah.


On Religious Materialism…Part I By Dr. Elana Stein Hain

September 12, 2018

It is no secret that Modern Orthodoxy has a money problem. Beyond Shabbos table anecdotes, the September 2017, Nishma survey listed the cost of Jewish schooling (1), the cost of maintaining an Orthodox home (4), people being dishonest in business (5), and the adequacy of funds to meet community needs (10) among the “top ten issues that are perceived as problems facing the modern Orthodox community.” As we begin another year of paying for school, shul, meals, festive clothing, ritual objects, etc., etc., I want to share a few thoughts about religious materialism, that is, the way we spend money on religion. Consider it a more expansive version of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of mitzvot). It is not only about the cost of a shofar or a sukkah, but the costs of this religious lifestyle overall. This post will be part 1 in a series.

Usually the question posed is: How can we make Orthodox life less expensive? But I think this misses the fact that for many, having a beautiful shul (which costs money) and an impressive school (which costs money) is not a deterrent from the Orthodox life, but makes it more compelling. Who wants their child’s Orthodox day school experience to be inferior to what they could get elsewhere? Who wants their car to be nicer than their shul?

This is exactly the point that Etan Diamond makes about why Orthodox Judaism thrived in the suburbs in the mid-20th century. In his book “And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia,” he asserts that religious materialism played an important role (alongside the day school movement, in fact). As Orthodox Jews became more upwardly mobile, their Jewish lives had to keep up with the rest of their standards of living to be compelling. Consequently, shuls changed from the shteibel model to a more upscale, suburban look and feel: the types of place someone in the upper middle class would want to be. Likewise, kosher food and establishments began to compete with non-kosher luxury experiences to be “subtly attractive to the modern world.”

Given this possibility, I think the question should change: How can we keep Orthodoxy attractive to the whole community, given that for some it needs to be less expensive to be attractive (=possible) and for some it needs to be more expensive to be attractive (=compelling), whether people admit so or not)?  To be sure, there is what to talk about in terms of the dangers of excessive materialism generally, and we’ll get to that in another post. But right now, let’s recognize descriptively that different lifestyles are simply a fact in our communities.

To set the groundwork for addressing this issue, I turn to the Gemara in Menaḥot 89a, where Chazal recognize both spending and saving as Torah values:

שלשה ומחצה למנורה חצי לוג לכל נר:  מנא הני מילי דתנו רבנן (שמות כז) מערב עד בקר תן לה מדתה שתהא דולקת והולכת מערב עד בקר…ושיערו חכמים חצי לוג מאורתא ועד צפרא איכא דאמרי מלמעלה למטה שיערו ואיכא דאמרי ממטה למעלה שיערו מאן דאמר ממטה למעלה שיערו התורה חסה על ממונן של ישראל ומאן דאמר ממעלה למטה שיערו אין עניות במקום עשירות

I’m paraphrasing to clarity: The menorah in the Beit HaMikdash needed 3.5 log of oil, half a log in each of its seven cups. This was the amount needed for it to burn overnight. Per rabbinic understanding of Shemot (Exodus) 27:21, the menorah should have enough oil to burn from evening until morning. The sugya continues with a debate over how people calculated the quantity of oil needed to burn overnight. Did they start with more oil than needed, and decrease as they experimented and saw that less was needed? Did they start with only a little and increase as they saw that more was needed? Each side of the debate has its own logic. Those who assert that they started with less and increased the oil relies on the principle that “the Torah protects the money (=possessions) of Israel.” Those who assert the opposite rely on a principle which is evoked in the rabbinic literature only in context of the Mikdash: “There should be no indication of poverty in a place of wealth.” In other words, the Mikdash is a place meant to evoke abundance, largesse. Trying to save money in its functioning seems cheap.

Both spending and saving are valued here as religious principles. On the one hand, religious life should express abundance, a willingness to use our resources in service of God. On the other hand, the Torah itself expresses concern for protecting the hard-earned money of the worshippers. It is not that those who have less to spend should be viewed as cheap or somehow missing the mark. Their decisions reflect a different religious value. How should we mediate between these two approaches? This will be of Part II, my next blog post on religious materialism. In the meantime, כתיבה וחתימה טובה!


We Can Fix This! By: Yosef Kanefsky

September 4, 2018


As we will repeatedly concede during our tefillot over the coming awesome days, it will be up to God to decide much of what will happen in the coming year. But we should not underestimate for a second how much is up to us to decide.

This past year was characterized by incredibly unpleasant, painful, and alienating discourse, around Shabbat tables, online, and almost anywhere. The landscape of 5778’s waning days is strewn with broken friendships, strained families, communities riven apart, and a civil society that is civil in name only.

5779 though, is in our hands. I have found the following Talmudic discussion to be helpful and encouraging, and I hope you will too:

The Torah records two pretty similar mitzvot, one in Shmot and one in Dvarim. In Shmot we’re commanded to help our enemy unload his animal when we see that animal collapsed beneath its burden. In Dvarim, we’re commanded to help our brother reload his animal when the animal’s burden has fallen.

The Talmud puts the two mitzvot into the blender, and then asks: what if you simultaneously encounter your brother’s animal which is collapsed and in need of unloading, and your enemy’s animal which whose burden has fallen and is in need of reloading? Which takes priority? The Talmud’s answer: The priority is to help your enemy to reload. “But why?” the other voice in the Talmud demands. The collapsed-and-still-loaded animal is suffering, and by Torah law we are directed to prevent the suffering of animals! Shouldn’t the mitzva of unloading automatically take precedence over the reloading? Yes”, the Talmud concedes, this line of reasoning would ordinarily be correct, but not in this instance. In this instance the priority is to unload with your enemy as a means of vanquishing your natural inclination to ignore your enemy’s plight. Vanquishing your own nature is deemed an uber-mitzvah, an activity of transcendent worth.

A question though: Exactly which aspect of his human nature is the person being asked to defeat here? Hatred of his enemy? Not a bad one to work on, but it happens not to be the one the Torah is discussing here.

The word for enemy that the Torah uses here is שונאך (sonacha), which we instinctively translate as “someone whom you hate”. But as Torah Temima points out, the Biblical word for someone whom you hate is שנואך (snoo’acha). שונאך (son’acha) by contrast, is “a person who hates you”. Meaning, that what the Talmud is prioritizing as an uber-mitzvah is not the act of vanquishing your inclination to ignore the plight of someone whom you hate (as admirable as this is.) It is rather the act of vanquishing of an entirely different – and much more significant – negative inclination, that of refusing to come to the aid of someone who hates you, in your belief that no act of kindness on your part will ever change that person’s feeling about you. That no matter what you do, it won’t make any difference; there will be no equal and opposite reaction on the other side. This is the human inclination that threatens to trap all of us forever in enmity and bitter opposition. When we believe that our fellow human beings are incapable of change and that we are helpless in the face of minds that have already been made up, we will also believe that it’s completely futile to try to build bridges, or to extend ourselves with decency and kindness in the spirit of shared humanity.


And it gets worse. For when multiplied outward, it leads us to the ineluctable conclusion that working to effect positive change in the world is the most futile activity imaginable. For if humans can’t change, nothing can change. So why should I even bother? This is why the Talmud identifies this inclination as the one that we have to grab by the throat and subdue. For when we are willing to believe that change is possible, that sharp edges can be softened, that gestures of kindness and civility can elicit response in kind, then we can restore the bonds of our friendships, the wholeness of our communities, and our inspiration to keep working for a better world.  

This is the crisis of faith that we need to overcome today.  Not a crisis of faith in God. The crisis of faith in humanity.

Avot D’Rebbi Natan declares: Who is the mightiest of the mighty? The person who turns someone who hates him, into someone who loves him.” We can do this. We can fix this. One human encounter at a time.

Redemption, Israel, and African Migrants. By Yosef Kanefsky

April 2, 2018

והָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ …וְיֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽה’ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּֽוּ׃

And when you come into the land that God has promised you ….and your children ask you, “what is this service that you are doing?” You shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’”  And the people bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.

Well, not all the people. A few hands went up. “Is there time for questions, Moshe? “So you just said, וּלְקַחְתֶּ֞ם אֲגֻדַּ֣ת אֵז֗וֹב… וְהִגַּעְתֶּ֤ם אֶל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף֙ וְאֶל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֔ת. (Place the blood upon the lintel and the doorposts.) But a few verses ago you said,  וְלָֽקְחוּ֙ מִן־הַדָּ֔ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־שְׁתֵּ֥י הַמְּזוּזֹ֖ת וְעַל־הַמַּשְׁק֑וֹף.  (Place the blood on the doorposts and the lintel.) Does it matter in which order I do it? And if I accidentally do it in the wrong order, do I have to go back and do it again? And with our without a bracha?

According to the Mechilta (an early Halachic work dating from the time of the Mishna), Moshe replied,

יכול אם הקדים מזוזת לתשקוף לא יצא, תלמוד לומר והגעתם אל המשקוף וגו’ הא אם הקדים זה לזה יצא

“you might have thought, based on the earlier verse that the order matters, therefore I started the second verse, to teach that you fulfill the obligation either way.”

And if you wanted to you could also infer from the Mechilta that people asked other questions too. Whether the blood should be on the inside half of the doorframe or the outside half, and whether the stipulation that the Pesach be roasted, not cooked, disqualified meat that was cooked first and afterwards roasted.  You could actually imagine, if you were so inclined, Moshe was there the rest of the afternoon and half the night answering Pesach shailos.

And while we might be tempted to say that this is nothing more than the rabbis retrojecting Talmudic methodology onto the Exodus narrative, we would be missing something huge if we didn’t understand the Mechilta’s larger point. And that is, that in the eyes of our tradition, Redemption, at its core, is not the movement form bondage to non-bondage, it is rather the acquisition and enactment of a corpus of law that dignifies, sanctifies, and elevates our thoughts and actions, both individually and nationally. The real catastrophe of the Egyptian bondage was that is suspended the project initiated by Avraham

 “אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט”

who aspired “to instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is upright and just”.  Living under the thumbs of our taskmasters and of Pharaoh, the project stalled completely. We were deprived of the circumstances necessary for developing a corpus of national law that would embody tzedakah and mishpat, and which would mold us – as a nation –  into its image.  The sudden burst of halachic inquiry imagined by the Mechilta were the first sparks of redemption.

For it wasn’t only ritual Halacha that we were now receiving and engaging as we were becoming redeemed.   Moshe was also giving us law right then about how and when  we are to include the stranger who desires to celebrate the Pesach with us, and how more generally we are to establish “one law and one Torah” for the native born among us as well as for the stranger. For Redemption – at its deepest root – is the taking possession of, and ultimately creating a society based upon, a corpus of righteous law, that embodies the way of God.

And throughout our exiles, even as we continued to practice our ritual laws, we recognized that we were again in a state of unredemption – not simply because we had lost our land, but more so because we had lost our sovereignty, and with it our capacity to actualize an economy, a government, an army, a foreign policy entirely built on the foundations of – and forged in the furnace of – tzedek umishpat. We were living in unredemption because our law was in exile.

And our vision of re-Redemption is no different than that of the original. The days of the Messiah, as Rambam extensively describes them, are not about lions lying down with lambs, or fiery Temples descending from Heaven, or chocolate mousse not having any calories.

אַל יַעֲלֶה עַל הַלֵּב שֶׁבִּימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ יִבָּטֵל דּבָר מִמִּנְהָגוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם. אוֹ יִהְיֶה שָׁם חִדּוּשׁ בְּמַעֲשֵׂה בְּרֵאשִׁית. אֶלָּא עוֹלָם כְּמִנְהָגוֹ נוֹהֵג

It should not occur to you that during the days of the Messiah the world will function differently or that there will be something novel in the Creation. Rather, the world will continue in its customary way



אִם יַעֲמֹד מֶלֶךְ מִבֵּית דָּוִד הוֹגֶה בַּתּוֹרָה וְעוֹסֵק בְּמִצְוֹת כְּדָוִד אָבִיו. כְּפִי תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב וְשֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה. וְיָכֹף כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ וּלְחַזֵּק בִּדְקָהּ. …. הֲרֵי זֶה בְּחֶזְקַת שֶׁהוּא מָשִׁיחַ

If a king should arise from the House of David who studies the Torah and engages in its Commandments … in accordance with both the Written and the Oral Torahs, and he enjoins all of Israel to follow in its ways and encourages them to repair its breaches … then he may be presumed to be the Messiah.

For us, the Jewish people, Redemption was, is, and will always be for us, the emergence from political and legal impotence into the sovereignty necessary to create a national project of our own, which emerges from the womb the spiritual and moral vision as expressed in our Law. This is why we refer to Medinat Yisrael as “the first flowering of our Redemption”, for although Medinat Yisrael isn’t and perhaps shouldn’t ever be a Halachic State in the strict sense of the term, it possess enormous potential to become the full flowering of what Avraham and God together envisioned, וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט

Nowhere has the potential been more on display in recent weeks, than in the serious, difficult, complex conversation about the fate of the thousands of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Yes, there have been some very “unredeemed” comments like those of interior minister Aryeh Deri, which attempt to reduce the issue to a slogan. “עניי עירך קודמים!” – your own poor come before the poor of others”.  But as everyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of how Halachic discussion works knows, the actual process is a dialectical one, in which competing halachic and spiritual values are carefully weighed against one another. And these are the conversations that have been happening in Medinat Yisrael. The Halachic and spiritual value of self-preservation is being weighed against the halachic and spiritual value of not oppressing the stranger. The halachic and spiritual value of giving priority to your own poor, is being weighed against the value of supporting the poor more broadly, consistent with the “ways of peace”. Our historical uber-value of maintaining a Jewish majority in the State, is being weighed against our historical uber-value, obtained through our blood and tears, of shielding and taking in the refugee. And all sides in the debate are now openly acknowledging the fact that unfortunately Israel never established a proper process for Refugee Status Determination, that thousands of the asylum requests have not been reviewed, and that as a consequence no one really knows how many are economic migrants and how many are true refugees.  This conversation –and may it lead soon to a proper and worthy resolution – is the conversation of a redeemed people. A conversation worthy of the “first flowering of our Redemption”

On this Yom Tov of Redemption, we resonate with the sentiment articulated by Rav Avi Gissar, the Rav Hayishuv of Ofra, “a moral and legal challenge like this must be resolved in a way that is “mat’im” fitting for us, worthy of us, reflecting the entirety of our moral and spiritual heritage.  Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will, V’nizkeh l’geulah shleyma.  and may we merit the full Redemption.

The Dietitian’s Davening Challenge, by Yosef Kanefsky

February 18, 2018

So who’s been to cardio-rehab? It’s a hoot, right? I remember the day that I had my mandated get together with the staff dietitian. She was a lovely woman, who I’m sure has no idea that the most impactful thing she said to me had absolutely nothing to do with my diet.

“I see you’re a rabbi”, she said, as she leafed through my records. “I’m sure that means that you spend time daily in spiritual meditative practice. That’s really good for you”. I nodded in enthusiastic agreement, even as I was hoping she’d soon change the subject to something else….like tofu.  I was thinking about what morning minyan is actually like for me – cranking  through several thousand words in the tight space of 28 minutes, while simultaneously mentally composing a D’var Torah that will hopefully be not only interesting but inspiring, AND wondering whether I have enough Ralph’s cards left for the crowd that I can hear gathering outside. I was pretty sure that this didn’t qualify as the sort of meditative spiritual practice she had in mind.

The dietitian’s in-passing comment stuck with me with though, and over time I have come to embrace it as a challenge – the dietitian’s davening challenge.  Because I know that prayer is intended to be something a whole lot more thank it typically is, and that my life is the poorer for not attaining that something more.  And this morning – in the spirit of Parashat Terumah – I’d like to formally extend the dietitian’s davening challenge to every one of us here.

You’re probably thinking, “Parashat Terumah?! Terumah says not a word about the ritual act of prayer.  But that’s precisely my point.  The first step in embracing the challenge comes with the recognition that prayer as a ritual act is not indigenous to the Jewish tradition.

The Mishkan, described in Parashat Terumah,  not conceived, designed, or ordained as a house of ritual prayer. Nor, by the way, was it conceived, designed, or ordained as a place where animals and grains would be offered in sacrifice – though provision for this function was clearly made therein. No, the Mishkan was constructed simply to dramatically shrink the gap between God and people, and in doing so to invite relationship, even intimacy.  Whereas until this point in the Biblical narrative God dwelled only in the heavens, making one cameo appearance on the top of a mountain, with the construction of the Mishkan,  God would become a shachen, a neighbor. I have a memory of Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his Tuesday night parasha shiur at Yeshiva University, likening the Mishkan, with its menorah that remained lit throughout the night, and the loaves (lechem hapanim) always on the table, to the home of a dear friend, whom you can visit at any hour – any hour at which your heart is troubled and you’re in need of company. THIS is our original conception of prayer. Simply the human heart opening and unburdening itself in the soft presence of God. It was what we might call a spiritual, meditative practice.

When King Solomon built the MIshkan’s successor upon the Temple mount several hundred years later, this is how he described the prayer that he hoped would happen there:

כָּל־תְּפִלָּ֣ה כָל־תְּחִנָּ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִֽהְיֶה֙ לְכָל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם …  אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵדְע֗וּן אִ֚ישׁ נֶ֣גַע לְבָב֔וֹ וּפָרַ֥שׂ כַּפָּ֖יו אֶל־הַבַּ֥יִת הַזֶּֽה׃

“[Receive] every prayer or supplication offered by any person —each of whom knows the affliction of his own heart —when he spreads his palms toward this House,

כִּֽי־אַתָּ֤ה יָדַ֙עְתָּ֙ לְבַדְּךָ֔ אֶת־לְבַ֖ב כָּל־בְּנֵ֥י הָאָדָֽם׃

as You alone, You uniquely,  know the hearts of people.

Prayer, at the roots of our tradition, is the act of unburdening, of revealing, of seeking the counsel and assistance of the – יוצר יחד לבם, המבין את כל מעשיהם – the one who designed the human heart, and who understands what churns therein.

And so we turn to the dietitian’s davening challenge: How do turn our ritual act of prayer into this spiritual meditative practice? I think that this involves two steps, two components, neither of which is simple, but both of which are attainable.

The first has to do with developing a different relationship with the words. The larger question as to why our Sages decided to write words for us – even as they were fully aware of the downsides of doing so – will wait for a longer discussion, one which is already on the Summer 2018 Nosh n Drosh calendar. Meanwhile, in terms of finding a new way to relate to the words, I share a wonderful thought from the pen of Rabbi Art Green:

My life as a religious person means that I seek to live in the presence of God always,.[1] [What then is it “to pray?] To pray is to choose a particular time and place to notice that presence, [to] stop everything else I am doing, [to] leave behind all the bustle and activity … , and [to] come to God saying “Here I am.”

And the words of prayer – when at their best – function as a key. They press against the lock or crack the inner shell in just the right way as to let me in, to let me be in here with You. These ancient keys, gifts of my ancestors’ wisdom, I continue to carry in my pocket. I try to keep them polished, working well, free of the rust that comes with age – both their age and mine. To my delight – even surprise – they work pretty often.

He’s describing a relationship with the words that is not mechanical but meditative, not rote but rhythmic.  And this is the first step.

The second is what we’d call pre-meditative. As often as we can, we need to take two minutes – or even one minute – before we begin and ask ourselves:  What is it that I bringing to this prayer, and what am I seeking to achieve by the time my davening is done?

Working personally on this step over these past few years, I have:

  • brought my moral dilemmas to my davening, seeking to achieve clarity.
  • I have brought my frustrations to my davening, seeking to achieve equanimity.
  • I have brought my confusion, while seeking truth;
  • My guilt, while seeking the path toward repair;
  • My love, while seeking better ways to share it;
  • My longing, seeking a way to concretely translate it.

This is the dietitian’s davening challenge. It has made my prayer life much richer and my life much better.  And this morning, I extend the challenge to each of us.