Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Davening is Not

8 Elul 5770

If it's looking like there's a theme to this year's posts, it's purely by coincidence. But it is important, I guess, to define basic concepts before going on to more difficult ideas.

Perhaps the most misunderstood concept in Judaism is Davening. Most people think of Davening as "Prayer." After all, that's how we've been translating it for decades. The problem is that the word "prayer" gives off the wrong connotations - in fact, almost pagan connotations.

Thinking of Davening as "Prayer" implies that you're begging God for something. And if you don't tell Him about it, you won't get it, because He won't know what you want. It's much better to pray in a minyan, because the more people storm the heavens with their grovelling, the more likely it is that God will listen. After all, He probably won't care about you all by yourself, but if enough people inform Him they want something, He might change His mind. And by the way, who in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks do you think you are, asking God for stuff? He's freaking G-o-d; if He wanted something to happen, He would do it. If He decided to make someone sick, what, just because you ask Him, He's going to change his mind? He already decided to make them sick! What are you trying to accomplish, begging God to heal this person?

And if I don't tell God about what I want - which, by the way, happens to be the exact same thing, three times a day, every day - I won't get it. Sure, I couldn't care less about having Jewish judges, or bringing the lineage of David back to the throne of Israel - but I'll throw it in there just for kicks, just to make sure God likes me and will listen to my pleading for a livelihood.

Sound familiar, right?

I bet you're feeling a little meek right now. Maybe a little red in the face. Because that's how most of us view davening. AND THAT'S EXACTLY WHY MOST OF US HATE IT. What, you want me to beg for stuff from a God Who won't end up telling me whether I'm going to get it or not? And what do I need half this stuff for? Of the nineteen brachos in Shemonah Esrei, how many do you actually relate to? Eight? Ten? Twelve max, and if you think it's more, you're lying to yourself.

Think about it. The above definition of Davening is ridiculous. God knows all. He is all-powerful. He doesn't need us to inform Him of our desires. He knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. In fact, the whole concept of prescribed prayer is ridiculous if you think of davening as begging. What, the rabbis need to script my prayer? I know what I need - what do I need to use a siddur for?

That last line is the key; remember it and we'll come back to it. By now you've probably realized that Davening is not Praying, and that God does not need to hear our tefillos to know what we want. But then, who are our tefillos for? What IS davening?

Regarding this most basic question, I was enlightened by Rav Binny Freidman and Rav David Aaron of Isralight and Orayta.

The Hebrew word for "to daven" is להתפלל. If you know a little about Hebrew grammar (and I don't, really), that word is in the reflexive form - hitpa'el. This is key - words in that hitpa'el form mean to do something to yourself. It is reflexive - the doer is doing an action to his or herself.

Now, the verb in question here is פלל. What does that word mean? Going back to the first time we see that word - Yaakov Avinu uses it when he is about to bless Yosef's sons in Parshas Vayechi. After twenty-two years of being apart, Yaakov says ראה פניך לא פללתי. I did not "pilel" to see your face. What does pilel mean?

Rashi defines "Pilel" as (using Artscroll Rashi English translation): My heart did not fill me to think the thought. The word "pilalti" denotes "thinking," like the verse, "produce an idea, do some thinking."

Therefore, the word "pilel" means to think. In reflexive tense, you do something to yourself, so the word "להתפלל" means "to think about yourself."

And, by now, the meaning of Davening should start to become clearer. If God doesn't need to know about what we want, because He is all-knowing, why are we saying it?

The answer is: of course God doesn't need to hear it. We need to hear it. This is what we should be doing when we pray - thinking about ourselves. Do I really want to see Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash rebuilt? That is a seriously intraspective question. If the answer is no, why not? Do we care about having Jewish judges? If we don't, why not? And on and on and on. The Anshei Kneses HaGedolah set up nineteen brachos, nineteen basic spiritual tenets that we should think about every time we daven.

Finally we can begin to understand how some people take five, ten, even fifteen minutes to say Shemonah Esrei. They're not begging God with all their hearts - they're thinking about their own hearts and what they should want from God.

Since this is a difficult and perhaps provocative redefinition of Davening, I'll let you guys ask questions about anything I may have left out or left unexplained. Then I'll continue next week and hopefully answer those grey areas. Ask away!

Hatzlacha Raba!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Little Group Therapy

5 Elul 5770

The last topic in yesterday's parsha (שופטים) discusses the concept of an egla arufa. In a nutshell - if a dead body is found between two cities and nobody knows who he is or who killed him, the elders of the closest town go out to a dried up riverbank and do a whole ritual that includes breaking a young calf's neck.

The elders (i.e. rabbis) then say a few phrases as indicated by the Torah. One of those phrases is
ידינו לא שפכו את הדם הזה - translated loosely, we didn't kill this guy. Which is a very curious thing - do we really suspect the rabbis of the closest town of murder? We can't find the guy who killed him, so we're gonna point the finger at the nearest beis din?

The gmara itself asks this question, in Maseches Sotah (מו). The gmara explains that this was never our suspicion. Rather, the elders are somewhat at fault here, because they did not send out this traveler with proper accompaniment as he left town. In other words, no one walked him out to say goodbye.

Now, maybe I'm not getting it, but what does that have to do with anything? The village wasn't hospitable enough to escort a visitor out of town, and that got him killed?

Explains the Maharal, yes. There are two types of סייעתא דשמיא in this world, says the Maharal. One for the individual, and a more powerful one for the Klal, the Tzibur, the congregation. If that person had been escorted to his destination, his Mazel would have been different. He would have gone from being a yachid (individual) to a rabim (group). That, perhaps, would have spared him his life.

We see this concept of the power of a tzibur in many areas. An obvious one is davening - chazal say that the tefillos of a minyan are more powerful than of those praying without a minyan. Another proof is the realm of war. The pasuk promises us in Bechukosai ורדפו מכם חמשה מאה ומאה מכם רבבה ירדפו. Five of you will pursue a hundred, and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand. Rashi points out the discrepancy in the math - five chasing a hundred is 1:20, a hundred chasing ten thousand is 1:100. How does that work?

Rashi explains that spiritual math works differently than physical math. Spiritual math says that when you increase the number of Jews doing something holy (like fighting a war that God commanded), they can do more than a smaller number of Jews doing the same thing.

This is the power of a group. Humans have a great propensity to gather in numbers. We feel the need to congregate, to socialize. This koach, like all kochos that Hashem gives us, can (and should) be used to our benefit.

We all know that it's easier to be "frum" (whatever that means) when we're in a group. When everyone else is interested in growth, then it's easier to grow. When everyone else is not interested in growth, that's where it's especially challenging to get closer to God. Let's use our friends to our advantage. Getting together in a religious setting - whether to learn, daven, or just schmooze about life - can be the difference between incredible growth or ח"ו a stagnated summer. Next time you're in the mood to learn, go out to the beis instead of your dining room. That way, it'll be easier to do it again the next time, because you'll have chevra in place who can help you.

Hatzlacha Raba!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What is Teshuva?

2 Elul 5770

Many of us know that Elul is a time for Teshuva. Unfortunately, many are missing a minor detail - what exactly is Teshuva?

Let's look at what חז"ל say, and then we'll sum it up into something we can take with us.

The Rambam introduces Hilchos Teshuva with the following phrase:

מצות עשה אחת (הוא מצות תשובה), והוא שישוב החוטא מחטאו לפני ה' ויתודה

According to the Rambam, Teshuva is a positive commandment to: a) repent, b) admit your sins before God. Then, throughout the first halacha in Hilchos Teshuva, the Rambam goes on to emphasize this concept of וידוי, of admitting your sins before God. He writes phrases like: כל המרבה להתודות ומאריך בענין זה הרי זה משובח - anyone who goes on at length with his וידוי is praiseworthy.

What is the big deal about וידוי? Why is it so important for someone to "admit his sins before God?"

Let's think about this rationally. God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-adjective. He is, for lack of a better term, The Man. היה הווה ויהיה, HKB"H knows all.

Why, then, are we telling Him about everything we've done wrong? Was He not aware that we skipped maariv last week? Stole twenty bucks from our parents' stash in their sock drawer a month ago? Cheated on our finals in June? What can God possibly gain from us listing off every time we've screwed up - does He really enjoy making us feel so terrible about ourselves?

The answer, of course, is that וידוי is not for God. Hashem is not some human king who needs to be informed by his subjects about all that's going on in His kingdom. He knows already. But we are the ones who need to know. We are the ones who need to be informed. And the only person who's going to be able to tell us about our own shortcomings is ourselves.

You all know how well we take criticism. It's usually received with defensive, angry, uncooperative feelings and emotions. Even if it's constructive criticism. But when we criticize ourselves, when we catch ourselves doing something wrong, we stop and listen. When we hear about our חטאים from our own mouth, there is a chance we will take it to heart. There is a chance we will think about it, because it's not someone else expressing their superiority by pointing out our faults. It's coming from us.

That's what so huge about admitting our sins. The best platform we have to receive criticism about our actions is from our own mouth. So when we enumerate the things we have to work on, we are able to think - with a clear head - about actually improving those areas.

More on this later on.

What Elul is Not

1 Elul 5770

A lot of people dislike Chodesh Elul for the following reason. To most, Elul is a time to feel bad about yourself. To search for regret about past misdeeds. To wonder how you can attain forgiveness in a month or so. To admit your own shortcomings. And hovering over all these negative feelings is the huge shadow (כביכול) of a God Who's about to exact His revenge on His unloyal subjects.

The reality, in fact, could not be further than the truth.

One of the acronyms for Chodesh Elul is:

אני לדודי ודודי לי

I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me.

This is a pasuk from Shir HaShirim, expressing the love and intimately fierce connection between HKB"H and Am Yisrael. The fact that it is used to describe Chodesh Elul means that the month is not a time to be afraid of God, but to get close to Him. To realize that HKB"H loves us very much. Elul is a time to re-experience the closeness of a God who cares about every single thing we do.

This month, don't feel threatened by HKB"H. Feel loved. Try to understand what it means to live a life of closeness to God. Realize that Hashem is not out to get you. He's not trying to force you against your will to live a strangled, boxed-in lifestyle. He's trying to help you live the best possible life in His world.

Elul is about rediscovering who we really are. If we have that frame of mind, the whole process doesn't only become less arduous, it becomes exciting.

More on this later on.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Getting in the right frame of mind

27 Av 5770
Shabbos Mevarchim for Chodesh Elul

The pasuk tells us in this week's parsha:
(דברים יא:כו)
ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה
Behold I place before you today a blessing and a curse.

There is a similar phrase in Parshas Nitzavim:
(דברים ל:טו)
ראה נתתי לפניך היום את החיים ואת הטוב ואת המות ואת הרע
Behold I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil.

Why does the Torah switch from blessings and curses to life and death? What is the pasuk in Nitzavim adding? We already know the formula from Parshas Re'eh: mitzvos=blessings, aveiros=curses. What more do we need to know?

The משך חכמה refers us to the few psukim earlier in Parshas Nitzavim. There Moshe Rabbeinu discusses the concept of Teshuva for the first time. Bnei Yisrael are introduced to the idea of a second chance; if at first you don't succeed, try try again. And again. And again. All the way up until the day of your death.

Now, explains the משך חכמה, we can understand what happened between Parshas Re'eh and Parshas Nitzavim. Blessings and curses are things that come in the future, and Moshe is foretelling the potential judgment based upon this year's actions. By Parshas Nitzavim, we've already been introduced to the concept of Teshuva, and we're already at the life and death stage. Either a person chooses life, or he chooses death ח"ו, both in this world and the next.

Rav Mordechai Willig once pointed out that Parshas Re'eh and Parshas Nitzavim always bookend Chodesh Elul in some form or another. This year Re'eh was Shabbos Mevarchim. Sometimes it's the first shabbos in Elul. But whatever the case, these pesukim really get us focused on the proper mindset for the month. During the year we have earned Brachos and Klalos. We have future reward or ח"ו punishment ahead of us. Now we have a month to think about that. We have a month to focus on Teshuva. And at the end of that month, we will have furthered our choice, and now the stakes will be even higher. Did we choose life? Or ח"ו death?

Now is the time to choose. You can't just wake up Rosh HaShana morning and say, okay, time for Teshuva. It has to begin now. May הקב"ה give us all the strength to analyze our actions and change them for the better, אמן כן יהי רצון.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Elephant of Tisha B'Av

9 Av 5770

The big elephant in the room when it comes to Tisha B'Av is simply this:

Who friggin' cares?

We get it. There used to be a big building. In place of that hideous gold dome. The Temple. And every year we mourn the destruction of said Temple, the annihilation of a lot of people, the exile of our forefathers, yada yada yada.

How does this impact ME?

After all, I live a good life. I live a religious life. I love God, He loves me, I am frum, I am happy. Baruch Hashem. What do I need the friggin' Temple for?

This is the elephant in the room. We kind of go through the motions on Tisha B'Av - saying kinos, reading eicha, wearing uncomfortable shoes, not eating - but when it comes down to it, not very many people care that there's no animal sacrifice nowadays. We all think it - why should I care - but no one dares voice it, because that would make you a loser or an apikores or something.

But what is the answer to that question?

I'd love to hear what you have to say; and I daresay that it's an important issue that requires thought and discussion. But if you're in the mood not to think, and you want to hear what I think, then by all means, keep reading.

Being a Jew is hard. Keeping halacha is hard. Keeping a connection with the Ribono Shel Olam is hard. Feeling good about ourselves in a spiritual way is hard. You all experienced it during your shana alef, you experience it now, and you will experience it for the rest of your lives. It is increasingly difficult, every day it gets worse, to be a frum Jew in the modern world.

When we had the Beis HaMikdash, it was so much easier to connect to spirituality in this world. Think about it - every yontif, we didn't go to see Aunt Matilda in Monsey or Teaneck - you went to see GOD in the Beis HaMikdash (not literally, but you know what i mean). If you ever did an aveirah that you didn't know was assur (i.e. you did it b'shogeg) - like tying your shoelaces in a double-knot on shabbos - if you learned afterwards that it was assur, you brought a korban chatas to the Beis HaMikdash. I mean, I would've been there like every week with my shogeig aveiros! Or at least every other week.

Think about it. Three times a year, and probably many more, you visited with God in His House. How much more focused was the davening of that generation? How much more intense was their learning? If you were chilling on Ben Yehuda and you had a nisayon to touch or look at a girl, all you had to do was look at the skyline - the friggin' Beis HaMikdash towered over the city! Imagine if the Train Bridge that you can see from all of Yerushalayim, imagine if that Bridge reminded you of HKB"H (which it does, kind of, with a finger pointed at the sky). Spirituality would be so much easier. A connection with the Ribono Shel Olam would be so much more attainable. Deep down happiness - being happy with who you are; i.e. a soul and a guf - would be more readily accessible.

This is what we're mourning. Not some random building that burned down two thousand years ago. It's the loss of a lifestyle that was an amazing way to lightningrod (if I can use that as a verb) our connection to HKB"H. It's the fact that we lost the ability to connect to God in an easier/simpler/better way, and now we have to struggle and fight our way through the muck of this generation's challenges. Because life may be good for our guf, but it's pretty tough on our neshamah.

This Tisha B'Av, think about your own struggles. Think about how hard it is to connect to Hashem, how far away you are physically, mentally, and spiritually. And then resolve to get closer. Resolve to put in a little more effort. Because nowadays that's all we got. We can put our work in, and then it's up to HKB"H to take us the rest of the way. As you know I love quoting the gmara in Makkos, בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך מוליכין אותו. Down the path a person wants to go, that's where Hashem takes him. If we want to get closer to HKB"H, then He will help us get there.

May we all have a meaningful fast.