Shema – Hearing the Call in the Wild

Shema – Hearing the Call in the Wild

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 

There are many ways to pray and many ways to affirm the unity of God. While prayer is portable and can be done from just about anywhere, there is something magical about the backdrop of the mountain and the chorus of nature to uplift our spirit. With our ears more attuned in the natural world, our hearts can open to the words that have kept our people together for 3000 years: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad/ Listen (hear this, pay attention), God is our God, God is One”.

To fulfill the words of Shema in the outdoors, we sometimes need to become very quiet. Our silence is an invitation to hear the voice of God more clearly, to feel the unity of Spirit, and to rest in the Oneness of it all.

This invitation to stop and listen occurs twice daily in Jewish prayer. The Shema is liturgically proscribed during the morning and evening services, as the biblical verse states: “when you rise up and when you go to sleep” /“u’v’shoch’becha u’v’kumecha” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The prayer has been described as the foundation of Jewish life because it conveys the primary belief that God is One. This was a new belief for our ancestors who dwelled among their ancient Near Eastern neighbors who believed in multiple gods or Animism.

In perusing Rabbi Isaiah Wolgemuth’s book, Guide to Jewish Prayer, I came across a passage that lends itself to the power of Shema, particularly, how the words are experienced in nature.

The author cites the Torah commentator, Avudrahom, who suggests that the word “Shema” itself contains a reference to several fundamental concepts in Judaism:

Shema (shin, mem, ayin) is an acrostic Se’u Marom Eynechem (lift up your eyes), which we should do Shacharit, Mincha and Aravit (morning, afternoon and evening).  The message is that Shadai Melech Elyon (God is the Supreme King). If you do this,  you will accept Ol Malchut Shamayim (acceptance of God’s sovereignty forever.) (P. 94)

I have been spending some time in nature over this summer at Camp Ramah in the North Georgia mountains. Joyful activities, as loud as they can sometimes be, are part of the spirit of Jewish summer camp. There are times, however, in Jewish life, when the human chorus gets quiet. At camp, the quiet is like a “rest note” in a grand symphony, creating a sacred silence that cedes to the crescendo of nature. Jewishly speaking, that “rest note” is sustained through the words of prayer, particularly in the Shema – the prayer that calls us to listen. Shema in the sacred mountain community, turns our full attention, not only to the glory of our surroundings, but also to the One who called it in to being.

This past week, I encountered two profound “Shema Moments” connected to this teaching. The first one occurred during Kabbalat Shabbat, a special service to welcome the Sabbath attended by 700 camp residents.  A phenomenon occurred. As we started to pray in the covered sports pavilion, a torrential rain hammered down on the tin roof above us, insistent and percussive, it drowned out our communal prayer. We tried to meet the power of nature by rising to our feet, clapping our hands, and singing on the top of our lungs. But how could we compete? Kol Adonai BaKoach – “the voice of God roars in might”. Ironically, we had just recited those words in Psalm 29 as part of our worship. On that night, these words meant something new. We realized that our collective voice had the power of one of those raindrops.

The rain continued for over an hour and eventually the whole camp lost electricity. In that moment, God’s voice was heard loud and clear, even awe-inspiring. In a way, it was silencing. With our eyes raised to the heavens, we knew that we couldn’t drown out the rain, but we could use the experience to create sacred memories while trying. By the time we reached the words of the Shema in the evening prayer, the pavilion was getting darker and the rain was getting louder.  By then, however, every voice was lifted in unity and pride.

Sometimes we can’t help but hear the voice of God. Other times, though, it calls to us softly and we have to quiet ourselves to listen. A few days later, I attended a morning service with a smaller group of campers who were gathered by the lake. While we waited for some participants to finish their silent prayer, a counselor prompted the group to close our eyes and listen to our surroundings.  On this clear, cool clear morning, we turned our full attention to what we heard: bird calls, leaves swooshing in a breeze, the babble of the distant creek, fish flopping around in the lake, buzzing insects – on that morning, the voice of God was a whisper in the mountainside.

While the words of the Shema are only proscribed twice a day, the invitation to listen is always available to us. Wherever we find ourselves in the chorus of nature, be it in the crescendo or the rest note, the thunder or the whisper, may our hearts and ears open to let the Voice in. May the serenity and the challenge of nature continue to inspire us and renew our spirits for generations to come.

 

 

 

“On a Wing and a Prayer”

 

“On a Wing and a Prayer”

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 

Generally, I enjoy travel – once I am on the way, that is. Preparing to leave, however, is another story.

A flag is raised by my packing routine: pack, shop for last minute items, repack, assemble a year’s supply of toiletries (even for just the weekend), and secure a triage bag for unexpected ailments. If the packing detail involves children – add an arsenal of car activities, electronic devices, accompanying paraphernalia, and another three hours of preparation.

Once the onerous task of packing has been completed, the “departure routine” begins: “Did you shut off the water? Unplug the electronics? Take out the trash? Set the alarm?” Add a few more last minute items to my bags and we are on our way. Even when I am traveling alone, the scaled down process can still be daunting.

The Jewish law codes stipulate that the “Traveler’s Prayer”, also known as the Wayfarer’s Prayer, (Tefillat Ha’Derech) can only be recited once one has already embarked on the journey (Shulchan Aruch 110:7). Some of us, however, need a version to be recited much earlier.  Be that as it may, the Traveler’s Prayer has accompanied the Jewish people on their journey for centuries.

One of the earliest iterations of this prayer can be found in the Torah: “Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.” (Deuteronomy 28:10). The Biblical exegete, Abravanel, states that this blessing refers to “safety in travel to and from the city, a common theme in descriptions of blessing and prosperity” (JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, p.259). Similarly, Isaiah 55:12 states: “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace…”  In greeting one another, one often recites, “Shalom aleichem!”/ aleichem shalom!” – “May peace be upon you!”, or when departing, “bo’achem l’shalom, tzayt’chem l’shalom-  “Go in peace and come in peace”, a familiar blessing from the Sabbath table hymn.

The rabbis of the Talmud were also concerned with the ordeals of travel, as discussed in Tractate Brachot 29b:

Rabbi Jacob also said in the name of Rabbi Hisda: Whoever sets forth on a journey should say the prayer for a journey. What is it? — ‘May it be Your will, O Lord my God, to lead me forth in peace, and direct my steps in peace and uphold me in peace, and deliver me from the hand of every enemy and ambush by the way, and send a blessing on the works of my hands, and cause me to find grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see me. Blessed are You, O God, who hearkens unto prayer’.

 ואמר רבי יעקב אמר רב חסדא: כל היוצא לדרך צריך להתפלל תפלת הדרך. מאי תפלת הדרך? יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אלהי שתוליכני לשלום ותצעידני לשלום ותסמכני לשלום, ותצילני מכף כל אויב ואורב בדרך, ותשלח ברכה במעשי ידי, ותתנני לחן לחסד ולרחמים בעיניך ובעיני כל רואי, ברוך אתה ה’ שומע תפלה

Over time, the blessing was expanded upon and varied from culture to culture. The overall theme, however, remains – a plea to deliver the travelers safely to their destination, protect them from peril along the way, and when applicable, return them home in peace.

In modern times, the prayer has made its way on to amulets, keychains, pendants, and even luggage tags. Recently, the PJ Library sent out an endearing Tefillat Ha’derech project for children to learn about the traditional version of the prayer as well as prompt cards to create personalized wishes for safe travels.

Indeed, upon reflection, there are many modern hazards from which we need protection. Outside factors such as traffic accidents, road rage, overzealous TSA agents, or lost luggage can easily unhinge us.  Internal pitfalls such as anxiety, impatience and anger can be just as damaging. Our response to these triggers will “make or break” a happy trail. The Traveler’s Prayer reminds us that we have a responsibility to ourselves, as well as to our fellow passengers, to create a peaceful passage for all. It is good to remember that when our flight is delayed, the ticket agent isn’t to blame, no matter how loud we yell at her.  When we are stuck in traffic under the blistering sun on an interstate road, we can groove to the opening scene of “La La Land.” Who knows, maybe everyone will dance on their car rooftops. There is always the “high road”, as it were.

Where ever our journeys take us this summer: May we and those with whom we share the ride, be accompanied by the ancient blessing of our people. May we be protected in body, mind and spirit, ready to trail blaze, see new sites or be refreshed and enlightened. May we go in peace and return in peace with all of our wits (and luggage) intact!

English Text of the Traveler’s Prayer: May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You lead us toward peace, guide our footsteps toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush along the way, and from all manner of punishments that assemble to come to earth. May You send blessing in our handiwork, and grant us grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our humble request because You are God Who hears prayer requests. Blessed are You, Lord, Who hears prayer. (Translation from MyJewishLearning.com)

 

 

To Jerusalem and Back

To Jerusalem and Back

by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

I was eight years old when I fell in love with Israel. I know it had to do with those school posters with the varied landscapes, smiling Israelis with peculiar hats, The Land of Milk and Honey… and Jaffa oranges. In Bible class, I announced that one day, I would travel to Israel to see the pillar of salt that was “Lot’s wife”. The Israelis in my class gave me a funny look.

I had to wait a bit, but my first trip to Israel was the happy summer of ninth grade. After months of begging, my parents sent me on a six-week teen tour focused on the “Kibbutz experience”.  I was excited for all of it. Disappointed as I was that “Lot’s wife” would not be a stop on the tour… or any tour for that matter.

The bigger eye opener, however, was my first job on Kibbutz: cleaning pots of PORK from dinner the night before.  Really. Who knew that Shomer Ha’tzair (“The Young Guards”), the founders of that Kibbutz, were not even remotely observant Jews?  That didn’t come up in my Orthodox Jewish day school education. I had a lot to learn (especially about cleaning pots – a job I wasn’t asked to do again). Other than “Kitchen Duty”, Kibbutz life was amazing. The people were kind and strong. Every experience was new. I welcomed waking at dawn to plant seeds in the fields, working in factories that produced dog food and pharmaceuticals (not the same building). I felt like I was in an “I Love Lucy” episode!  And have you ever eaten pomegranates fresh off the tree? Oh Yeah. Eventually, I even got used to the stench of fertilizer.

That experience was so formative that I enthusiastically returned to Israel the next summer on a teen leadership seminar.

Throughout my teenage years, I had a huge crush on Israel. An Israeli flag prominently hung on my bedroom wall.  I couldn’t wait to live there one day.  I had it all figured out: I would join the Israeli army, rise to the ranks of a Mosad agent, and simultaneously serve in the performance corp (Le’hakat Tze’va’i). In this grand plan, I would go on to study international politics, become a diplomat and live in Herzaliya Pituach (a wealthy neighborhood outside of Tel Aviv). Yup.

After high school, I settled in Israel for a “gap year”, fully expecting to stick with the plan.  But as they say, “man plans and God laughs” – or however you say that in Hebrew.   For one thing, every Israeli I met, men and women, immediately discouraged me from joining the army (which pretty much gutted the rest of my diplomatic career…). Derailed as I was, I was still hopeful that the year ahead would yield incredible experiences and memories for a lifetime.

Where did I begin? I enrolled in an Israeli trade school for arts and technology. It didn’t seem to bother anyone that I couldn’t even draw a stick figure. While the Judaic classes were wonderful, I cried through every art period – except photography. So, with a new mission, camera in hand, I set out to capture the nooks and crannies of archeology, glistening olive trees and wizened faces in the shuk.

In turn, the city of Jerusalem captured my heart. It was amazing to experience antiquity and novelty through the same lens.  My travels took me to flourishing neighborhoods and some scary places along the way. I met tons of young people from all over the world, all of them, like me, gushing with ideology. All of them Ohavei Tzi-yon – Lovers of Zion.

I really did love life in Jerusalem – traversing Ben Yehudah street and the Old City. Preparing for Shabbat was unique for sure – like no other place in the world. I spent hours roaming in Mahaneh Yehudah, or sitting in cafes. I was humbled by the interplay of antiquity and modernity.

But at the same time, Jerusalem had a certain quality that was hard to bear.  As peaceful as some neighborhoods could be, there was a constant undercurrent: a rising din, a disharmony of religious life and culture clash, history being brought to bear on the present, political fury, debate at high decibels, right vs. left and everything in between.

As much as I loved the idea of Jerusalem, actually living there gave me a headache.

So, one Friday morning, on a whim, a friend convinced me to hop on a bus to the northern city of Safed.  We didn’t have a plan, just an idea. On the bus, I sat with an unexpected angel, disguised as a friend from long ago, who told me to move there, that I would love it. She said living in Safed would fulfill dreams I didn’t even know I had.  A mystical city with powerful blue doors, wadis to hike, holy cemeteries of saints. She was “living the life” in a habitable cave writing children’s books.

I told her about my conflict with Jerusalem, and she explained what was going on. She said, “In mystical thought, the four Holy Cities correspond to the four elements:  Jerusalem is “fire” – originally from the ancient Temple, but now from the “high energy” that runs through its inhabitants. Safed, on the other hand, is associated with “air”, because of the elevation (a city literally set in the clouds) and spiritual eccentricities of its past and present. Hebron then, is likened to “earth”, the holy site of a prominent biblical burial plot.  Tiberius is obviously the element of “water”, built up along Lake Kinneret.”

It struck me that I was literally traveling from fire to air.  I took a deep breath (maybe I should have waited until I got off the bus…) and immediately felt relieved.

I took my angel’s advice and after that weekend away, I returned to “the fire”, packed up my stuff and kissed the art school good bye. I decided not to live in a cave, and instead enjoyed many months in a beautiful seminary for women.  Everything about Safed was magnificent – the mystics, artists, hikes, landscape, and especially the estimated “one-thousand-year-old” trees in front of my building.

Eventually, I was called back home. Not Jerusalem home, but all the way back home to New York City.  The spiritual eccentricity had gotten the best of me and my parents through it would be “better” for me to re-integrate to American college life. Far from my original plan anyway, I obliged. Safed was a blast, but I had served my time there. I would never forget the feeling of making my home in the sky.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, would never leave my heart. I have been back there many times since. Her winding streets are a testament to my own personal narrative: the constant hills, stray cats, scrumptious pastries, the stillness of the Sabbath coming. No wonder Jerusalem is the subject of so many love letters.  I often wonder what the rest of my life would have looked like had I gotten used to the “heat”, had I not heeded to the voices that told me to change my course.  Mostly, though, when I think of Jerusalem, I think of her future, wishing her calm and security. I dream of her name’s sake – Jerusalem – Iru Salem – “The City of Peace”.

May 24th (28 Iyyar) commemorates the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, “Yom Yerushalayim”, the victory of the Six Day War in 1967. It is understood by many that this victory was nothing short of a miracle. Nevertheless, the “City of Peace”, in many ways is still in pieces. She continues to pay the price of war, as religious and political discord tear at her seams.

In the spirit of reconciliation, I invite us to pray, with deep and humbling intent, for the Peace of Jerusalem, today and every day.  In the 14th prayer of the daily Amidah, we recite:

Have mercy, Lord and return to Jerusalem, Your city. May Your Presence dwell there as You have promised. Build it now, in our days and for all time. Reestablish there the majesty of David, Your servant. Praise are You, God, who builds Jerusalem.

וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב. וְתִשְׁכּן בְּתוכָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ. וּבְנֵה אותָהּ בְּקָרוב בְּיָמֵינוּ בִּנְיַן עולָם. וְכִסֵּא דָוִד מְהֵרָה לְתוכָהּ תָּכִין

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, בּונֵה יְרוּשָׁלָיִם

 

I pray that Jerusalem will soon be built up with stones of joy instead of tears.

I pray that God’s sheltering Presence will return to her, as promised,

bringing tranquility and wholeness (shalem) to a city still divided.

May Redemption come in the form of harmony and understanding among her inhabitants.

And may the “Fire” of Jerusalem, burn again, with love – not strife – for all humanity.

Bimhera b’yameinu – Speedily in our Days.

ZACHOR – How Can We Forget

How Can We Forget?

by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

My niece attends a large Mid-Western public high school. Just yesterday, she discovered that the boy next to her in biology class had drawn a Swastika on his hand. When all 5’1 of her got up the gumption to ask him to remove it, not surprisingly, he told her to “Get lost” (in a less polite manner).  Now, as an engaged parent, my brother is on a campaign to fight the rising sentiment of anti-Semitism in his daughter’s school. Yes, it has been over 70 years since the end of World War II, but reading the paper and hearing about these kinds of stories makes one think otherwise.  In a letter to the principle, by brother wrote: “I have to believe for my own sanity that the boy did not realize that the swastika represents the torture and deaths of 6 million Jews, 250,000 disabled persons, 220,000 Gypsies, along with thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Homosexuals and Serbs.  Are any of us surprised that the boy did not think to write “KKK” on his hand or “White Supremacy”??  – or maybe we’re not surprised?”

Around the country, Anti-Semitism is popping up on hands, on sidewalks, on college campuses, and in public discourse. Having been previously pushed to the dark side of the internet, senseless hate is now out and about – seemingly more than usual. A colleague of mine moved from the spot light of a large East Coast Conservative synagogue, only to find herself embroiled in the national spot light in Whitefish, Montana. There is no rest for the weary.

Judaism has a response to hate. We say: Zachor. Remember! It is more than a word. It is a prayer. A plea. Remember! because the world is rapidly forgetting, or willfully not knowing, I am not sure which one is worse. Zachor is the paradigm of Jewish peoplehood. Through memory we become stakeholders for the future, affirming our journey, passing along our narratives along with our rites.

We have been remembering for a long time.

Long before the Holocaust, we held the injunction to Remember the gruesome surprise attack that Amalek launched upon Israel after their escape from Egypt (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).  Amalek’s crime was exceedingly audacious in that they victimized the weaker population – the stragglers in the rear. The Torah records many unpleasantries along our wondering way, but this particular occasion struck a nerve. So the Torah warns us – “Remember: Don’t Forget”.

We continue to remember this event and the many atrocities committed against the Jews since. The Inquisition, pogroms, and exiles dot our history books and have become a common litany on our yearly Tisha B’Av observance.

But our collective memory is scorched by the events of a closer hate-history: The Holocaust.

It was recently mis-stated in the public forum: “Not even Hitler gassed his own people”, or something like that.

Well, actually, he did. With Zyclon B.  The “showers” are still on view today in Concentration Camp museums in Poland. You can see them with your own eyes. You can travel to Europe right now to see defunct ovens and piles of ashes and bone. You can walk on areas paved with Jewish tombstones. And where the vestiges of war have been covered and re-developed, you can still take in the visual testimony, art as witness, and memorial plaques. You can do these things.

But, to actively Remember, you don’t even have to leave your room.  You, too, can (and should) bear witness to the memory of the Holocaust through thousands of personal accounts, books, documentaries, and survivor interviews. You can visit education centers and museums around the country.

As much as I would like to “forget” the kid next to my niece in biology class, and the rest of the – at best, un-enlightened or at worst, hate-mongers, I realize that my job is to continue to Remember and to remind others to Remember with me.

This year, let’s cry out Zachor in all the ways we can. Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) is observed on Monday, April 24th. Remember by lighting a candle for those who perished in the Shoah. Bear witness by reading or watching a survivor account, speak to a WWII Vet, teach someone who has no clue. Let’s make it a priority to wipe out hate.

Zachor – Don’t forget.

Further Educational Resources:

Florida Holocaust Museum        https://www.flholocaustmuseum.org/

Yad Vashem                                     www.yadvashem.org/

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum   ttps://www.ushmm.org/information/visit-the-museum/admission-tickets

USC Shoah Foundation                   https://sfi.usc.edu

Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs Yellow Candles:  https://www.fjmc.org/content/yellow-candles-home

Setting the Tone

Setting the Tone 

by Rabbi David Weizman

 

On the way back from drop off in the morning, a black SUV was being chased by a pickup truck. They cut through the lanes closely in front of cars like mine, but came to a halt at a stop light. As I approached the line, I could see the pickup driver speaking to the other driver in an animated way, and as he was turning left, saluting with the middle finger of his right hand. I felt fortunate that no crash occurred and that he only pulled out his finger and not a weapon. But it was a disquieting episode which interrupted an otherwise peaceful drive, listening to the BBC World News Happy Hour.  Fast forward to the end of the day, another auto moment, turning left out of the subdivision towards Hebrew School. A motorcycle approached from the East. Coming into view was a man in a black leather suit, no helmet, and he too was saluting me with that single finger I had seen in the morning. I am not sure how I merited that great honor, but glad I was that our six year old was looking the other way. Road rage is nothing new. The fact that any size human sits on the power of two hundred horses and is enclosed in steel armor could give anyone a sense of confidence. But what occurred to me that day, was how easy it is to become angry, and also, how easy it is to be swept up in the feeling.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of real violence, and if you follow the news, you might think that’s all that goes on in the world. That exposure could contribute to atmosphere of aggression, impatience, and intolerance. Now, more than ever, we need positive role models who speak in the language of mutual respect and cooperation, voices that will encourage us to be generous of heart, understanding of the other, and communal in our world view of humanity and the ecology we belong to. These attributes are the ones that the Torah speaks, and that is why our sages directed us to recite passages that remind us of these values every morning as we begin our day.

After the recitation of the blessing for Torah study, the siddur includes three passages to fulfill the commandment. The first one is from the Torah, Birkat Kohanim; the threefold Priestly Blessing. Just as we desire God’s grace and light to shine upon us, showing us the path of peace, we are reminded to be the agents of that grace.

The second passage is taken from the Mishna, teachings from the Oral Torah from the first two centuries of the Common Era, extrapolations on the laws from the Torah. We are instructed to make sure that those in need have food to eat, to support our religious institutions, in those days, the Temple, and to engage in acts of loving kindness, and to study Torah. For these things there is no prescribed measure, therefore we give according to our ability; giving graciously.

The third passage is taken from the Talmud which teaches us that each act of hessed is like making a payment to our investment fund. The interest from which we live on, but the principal is left for our ultimate retirement. Here is the short list: honoring your parents, acts of kindness, being punctual, providing hospitality, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending to the dead, delving into prayer, and being a peace maker. This teaching ends with the statement that the study of Torah is equal to all of the others. Why? Because study brings these mitzvot into consciousness.

This morning, several cars around mine, in three lanes of solid traffic, maneuvered around to let someone turn left onto a side street. A good way to start the day.

“Soakin’ It Up”

“Soakin’ It Up”

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

On our first day of studies at the Seminary, one of the professors adjured us to make the most of our experience and to study as much as possible while we had this glorious uninterrupted opportunity. To remind us of this advice, he addressed the group with the following blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ לַעֲסוֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה

 

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam,  Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’Tziva’nu  La’asok B’divrei Torah.

 

Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, Who has commanded us to be involved with words of Torah.

La’asok is typically translated as “to occupy, to involve, or be busy with”.  But the professor’s twist on the classic translation made a deeper impression. He explained to us that when we say “la’asok b’divrei Torah,” each morning in prayer, it is a reminder to “soak it all up” – not only words of Torah, but the whole experience of a vibrant Jewish life. When we soak it up, the feeling of Torah permeates all of our activities, our actions and interactions.  The words become part of us and part of all that we do.

The plea to “soak it up” has resonated with me throughout the years.  But, I found this blessing is more than just a play on words.  Most of the time, when we recite a blessing for a commanded activity, the blessing is immediately followed by the action associated with it. For instance, lighting the Hanukkah candles, waiving the Lulav and Etrog, or partaking in a meal. The blessing and tandem action are in close proximity in order to sustain the continuity of intention (kavanah).  However, the blessing for Torah study is unique in this regard. One can recite the blessing early in the morning and literally not attend to a single word of text until late at night. Yet, the blessing still holds for that entire time.  An explanation is offered:

The reason for this is that our activities during the day are not actually a distraction.  If a busy physician goes to synagogue in the morning, rushes home, sees patients, and then finally in the evening, sits down and learns Torah, ten hours might have lapsed between the blessing and the Torah study. But there was really no interruption at all, because healing the sick is a commandment in the Torah. Similarly, the blessing is valid for a business person who rushes from prayer in the morning to work all day and only sits down to study Torah in the evening. The purpose of making money is to support one’s family and to give to the poor…. Whatever your profession is, it is somehow connected to Torah. There is never an interruption. … All of our activities should ideally be directed toward one goal: following the teachings (i.e., being involved with the words of the Torah. (Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth, Guide to Jewish Prayer, 30-31)

The goal of involving oneself with Torah is not limited to the attainment of book knowledge. The goal is to absorb and to elevate all of our actions (even our distractions) to the level of Torah. The Hebrew word Torah literally means “light” or “direction”. So when we thank God for the commandment to “soak it up”, we are directing our hearts to soak up the light and direction where ever we find it and where ever we create it. We pray that everything we do – our vocations, avocations, even our down time, will serve as meaningful and purposeful expressions of the light, wisdom and good we have absorbed through our study.

Enwrapped By The Divine Presence

TZIZIT: “ENWRAPPED BY THE DIVINE PRESENCE”

By Rabbi David Weizman

Imagine a pastoral scene in the rolling hills of Rumania, sometime in the early 1930’s. It is late spring and little Yankle is taking the sheep out to pasture. He has one of the lambs tethered behind him for safe keeping. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and the smell of new grass and wildflowers fill the air.  Suddenly he feels a tug. The lamb has just nibbled off one of the four fringes of his tallit katan. Yankle realizes his predicament and, with as much force as he can muster, yells Gevalt! Over and over again. You see, he learned in the Mishnah Berurah (8:1), that one is not permitted to walk more than four cubits (approximately six feet) without the arbah kanfos, the four fringes. Now he had only three. He was trapped in his own dalet amos up there on the hill.

Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, known as Tzitz Eliezer after his book on Jewish law, rules that one must wear a tallit kattan even in extreme heat. I had a camper on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park one time, the only boy among eight girls, who paddled the canoe without a shirt, but left on the arbah kanfos to uphold this ruling by the Tzitz Eliezer.

The commandment for wearing the tzizit is derived from the Torah, Numbers 15:37-41, the passage we read as the third paragraph of the Shemah. It is specific to a four cornered garment, which in antiquity, was a common article of clothing. However, since we do not wear such clothing for many years, the prayer shawl became the instrument through which to fulfil the ­mitzvah of tzizit. The purpose of the fringes, as explained in the Torah passage, is to remind us of all of the commandments, and to live a life of holiness. Therefore, the custom of wearing a small tallit emerged so that one could wear the tzitit all day long. If you do so, and are planning to wear a tallit gadol for prayer, you need only to recite the blessing for the latter. As a meditation before donning the tallit we recite the opening verses from psalm 104: 1-2

My soul, bless Adonai, Adonai, my God, You are so greatly exalted.                                       

With beauty and splendor You are clothed, Enwrapped in light like a garment, You spread out the heavens like a curtain

 בָּֽרֲכִ֥י נַפְשִׁ֗י אֶת־יְה֫וָ֥ה יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהַי גָּדַ֣לְתָּ מְּאֹ֑ד ה֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר לָבָֽשְׁתָּ: עֹ֣טֶה א֭וֹר כַּשַּׂלְמָ֑ה נוֹטֶ֣ה שָׁ֝מַ֗יִם כַּיְרִיעָֽה

Before putting on the tallit, the fringes are examined so that they are not tangled and that their length is at least one handbreath. The attarah, or the band that is placed either on your forehead or around the back of your neck is held facing you while the blessing is recited.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God and Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to enwrap ourselves with tzitzit.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ לְהִתְעַטֵּף בַּצִּיצִת

Then the following intention is recited:

May it be Your will Adonai, my God and God of my ancestors,

To consider my fulfillment of the commandment of tzitzit before You,

As though I had fulfilled it in every detail, accurately and with full intent,

And the 613 commandments that it represents as well.

The numerical value of the Hebrew word, tzitzit equals 600. Add the eight threads and the five knots and you have 613, the number of commandments in the Torah.

The tallit, weather large or small, is wrapped around the head for a moment to meditate on the symbolism of the tzitzit, and to feel enwrapped by the wings of the Divine Presence. Then the tallit is hung into place over the shoulders.

In our congregation, we do not consider the tallit to be begged ish (men’s clothing) and that the mitzvah is applicable to both men and women who are of the age of majority. Therefore we encourage all to embrace this mitzvah, to acquire techielet, the blue thread, and to tie your own tzitzit with them, to wear them during tefilah, and even if it is not your tradition, to wear a tallit upon taking an aliyah l’Torah.