Flying On An Airplane – Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 20, 2009
I flew to NY yesterday on a very early flight – too early to daven before I left so I had to daven on the plane.
I have come to really enjoy davening on airplanes.
First of all, on these early morning flights, as was the case yesterday morning, most people were asleep and it was very quiet. I found it very peaceful and davening at my own pace without the sounds of others. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the sounds of a lively tefilla in shul, but my quiet airplane davenig was a welcome change of pace.
The are so few times in our lives when we actually have the opportunity to be in silence. usually the only time we are alone with potential for quiet time is in the car and then we usually put on the radio. Being alone and in a quiet space is often an unsettling experience as our thoughts may take us places emotionally that we do not want to go. On the other hand, quiet gives us a chance to think and concentrate, if only for a few minutes on important matters and the important people in our lives.
A second reason why I ennjoy davenign on airplanes is that from time to time I am inspired in ways that do not happen at my regular minyan. Here is an exammple from yesterday.
While daveing on the plane and reciting the blessing of “Ata Chonen L’adam Da’at” – “you grace humanity with knowledge” – I was overcome with a sense of gratefulness to God. I thought for a moment about all of the wisdom and knowledge that is involved in airplane travel and feelings of gratitude to God for granting humanity knowledge rushed over me.
It was a powerful spiritual moment, one in which I was reminded that even the most mundane and common occurences can connect us to our creator.

What motivates us?

June 10, 2009

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky


Why should we observe Shabbat? Or daven? Or put on tefillin, or eat only kosher, or follow the laws of niddah?   It’s gradually been occurring to me over the last year or two,  that within the Modern Orthodox world in which I live and teach, the answers to these questions have been shifting. In theory, the answer to any of these questions should start with the words, “because this is what God has commanded us to do”.  Sure, additional explanations might then be offered as to why God commanded us to do this, and further discussion might then be had about the benefits that result from the observance of this mitzvah, but it’s the fact that it was commanded by God that would seem to be the sole required element of the answer.


I derive this conclusion from the discussion in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 60) which presents the debate as to whether or not the performance of mitzvoth requires kavannah, and proceeds to conclude that they do. What sort of kavannah is it that is crucial to the validity of mitzva performance? The Mishna Brura explains that while it is of course preferable to have kavannah concerning the nature and purpose of the particular mitzvah at hand, this is not the sort of kavannah that the Shulchan Aruch is discussing. The mandated minimal kavannah rather, is the kavannah “to fulfill through this act that which God has commanded” (Mishna Brura #7).


Increasingly though, I am finding myself discussing mitzvot,  and the reasons we should do them,  in terms of ideas that the Shulchan Aruch might classify  as “secondary”. We talk about observing Shabbat in terms of the benefit that it brings to us and to our families within these frenetic, technology-driven, over-programmed lives that we lead.  Yes we know of course, that God commanded us to do this. And yes, we are thankful to God for having given us the Shabbat. But the primary motivation does not seem to be framed in terms of command. The same is true for discussions about kashrut (“holy discipline within the world of material over-indulgence”), or about the recitation of brachot (“continuous God-consciousness in a secular world”). And I don’t think that my experience in teaching and thinking in this way is unique.


Why this shift in how we talk about the reasons we do mitzvot?  Is it all a part of the modern (post-modern? Who can keep up?) search for meaning? Does the idea of having been commanded by God subconsciously run too contrary to our autonomy-loving grain to be sufficiently motivating?  As scientists and rationalists, are we compensating for our leaps of faith in God and Torah through a ruthless devotion to establishing rational explanations for all of the mitzvot we do?


And in the final analysis is being motivated to observe the laws of niddah, for example, by the benefits it will bring in the area of non-sexual marital communication, in violation of the Shulchan Aruch’s directive? Are we doing something wrong in approaching mitzvot in this way? Or as long as we are acknowledging that God has in fact commanded us to do these things, can we still say that we are intending  “to fulfill through this act that which God has commanded” even when this is not the motivation per se?

I’d love to hear what you think!