Monday, March 23, 2009

Golf and Prayers

While I am no golfer I have heard that there is hardly a more frustrating game to play than golf. What is so unbearable to the amateur golfer is his/her sense of inconsistency. The golfer can often make several shots in excellent fashion and even come to believe s/he has got his/her stroke down, only to follow them with poor play and eratic strokes. The golfer never seems to be the master of his/her game.

In some ways our tefila often has the same frustration to it. One day we may have a wonderful experience in prayer and believe we are finally in sinc with our kavana, only to find that a day or two later try as we might we cannot seem to connect with our Creator . At times the words come oh so naturally and we feel an immediate contact with the Divine. Other times try as we might, even if we concentrate on the meaning of the words, we just can't seem to generate the feeling that we are actually in dialogue with Hashem.

While I have no idea how to help the golfer. I do have some thoughts about our intimacy with the Divine. And they come from this weeks parsha. The first words of the portion are "Vayikra el Moshe..." "And He called to Moshe...." According to our sages each time G-d spoke to Moshe He called him before He began to speak...The verse in this portion is meant to be revealing of the nature of each encounter Moshe had with Hashem. The sages point out that unlike the prophets of the non-Jews, like Bilam, of whom it said "vaykar Elokim el Bilam", " and Elokim appeared to Bilam" , without being called or addressed, without their meeting being pre-arranged, G-d calls to Moshe. In the calling their meeting is no chance encounter. Its no accident. Its formal.Its consistent. G-d summons Moshe, invites him to the rendezvous with his G-d.

The Hebrew letter aleph in the word vayikra is written in the Torah smaller than the other letters of the word. Why? With the letter aleph in small print we are actually left with the word vaykar, the same word the Torah used when Hashem appeared to Bilam, implying a kind of impromptu encounter, rather than one planned and anticipated. What are we being told here about being called to intimacy? How do we reconcile the paradox?

I believe the message here reflects a great truth about spirituality and our relationship with Hashem. Yes we all want a consistent reliable feeling of closeness to the Divine...We all want to feel called, to experience the vayikra. But the only way that will happen is if we treat our life's experiences not as if they are repeated appointments, pre-planned events, formal and regular. No, we need to see life as constantly spontaneous and wondrous in its happenstance...It is in seeing life as vaykar, as immediate and surprising, as new and unexpected that our feelings are titillated and we are awakened to experience the holy.

The paradoxical message here is that in order to know the sense of being called we need to experience the immediacy of the Divine before us, in every encounter, in every breath we take.

Its feeling the surprise of the ordinary that allows us to experience its sacredness and the immediacy of the Divine.

When I live life in relationship to Hashem as if its vaykar, spontaneous, wondrous and unexpected, then I will feel the consistency and reliability of vayikra in Hashem'e relationship with me. For my prayers to be efficacious in building a gateway to heaven day after day paradoxically I need to make my prayers not a repeat of the day, month or year before, but something entirely new, as if I have never said these words before, never had the gift of standing before Hashem in prayer before. In feeling the newness and surprise of the moment I guarantee that each time the moment arrives it will reveal all its promise and fulfill its potential.

This is what the Talmud taught when its said "anyone whose prayer are fixed will not find his/her prayers received". It is also consistent with the requirement in halacha to never say the shmoneh esrai, the core prayer of each service without adding something new.

In some circles they distinguish between religion and spirituality by saying "religion is for people who don't want to go to hell...and spirituality is for people who have been there."
I prefer to say spirituality is for those who see all their experiences as new and unprecedented.
Religion is the medium, the filter, through which to have that experience of the forever new and immediate.

To live experiencing each moment as new and unprecedented is both exciting and scary. Many will prefer to repeat the same rather than risk embracing the possibility of the new without precedent. But just as there has never been a 'you' before you, there has never been this moment before now. We cannot let fear rob us of the gift Hashem intends for us in embracing this wondrous moment. We say in our morning prayers, "G-d recreates the world anew each day"! Our task is to experience that recreation and in that know the consistency of meeting each day anew with our Father in Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Leadership and Loss

We live in a time of disgraced leaders. From the Bernie Madoffs of the financial world to the out-going prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert it has become increasingly difficult to know whom to trust. And its not just individuals who have disappointed. Its whole institutions. Banks, historically the image of propriety, have been shamefully irresponsible, and with our moneys.
Large corporations, the symbols of stability, like GM, have squandered fortunes, and have cost their investors huge losses in personal savings.

The Torah this week anoints a community within the community of Israel. It designates Aharon and his children to serve the public as mediators between them and G-d. They are given the title of Kohein. They are garbed in special clothes. They are given esteem and privilege. They are our leaders.

And all that is inherited generation after generation. Could any institution or group of individuals be more set-up for corruption. Is it any wonder that we find instance after instance recorded in both Tanach and Talmud of corrupt priests. With the temptations of abuse before them it is a wonder that the priesthood remained as pure as it was.

It is interesting to note that according to halacha a kohein is not disqualified from Temple service for most violations of Torah observance. On the contrary he is mandated to serve even if he sins. Only for the most severe of sins, like idol worship, would a Kohein lose his privileges. And even then, according to Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershom, if he repents he can reclaim his role.

I suspect the Torah was teaching us something here. It was saying to us that the privilege of the Kohein is not given to him because of any personal deserts. He is not a role-model. He serves because he is a descendant of Aharon and his honors come to him because of what he does, not who he is.

In providing an institutionalization of the priesthood the Torah was telling us "Bring the Kohein your animals for sacrifice....but your relationship with G-d must be your own." The Kohein may have had the power and position...but he never had the trust of the people unless it was personally earned.

In fact in an interesting way the Torah model protects us from the disillusionment we witness in our day. Precisely because the right to the priesthood is not personal we are protected from believing in the kohein, only to be disappointed.

Truth is the Torah wants us to have an individual relationship with G-d. We cannot idealize a man or a group and then think we can ride their coat-tails to heaven. We cannot say I may not be so good but I support a good organization and let it be enough. The Christians believe they can live in mediocrity and identify with their God-figure and be 'saved'. We know our deliverance depends on our actions/deeds and needs to be earned. The kohein can do the Temple service for us. He can help foster atonement. But Teshuva is our work.

No, despite the temptations to compare, the Kohein never was the Bernie Madoff of the spiritual world. We never believed in him. And hence no matter his personal behaviors we never lost the investments we made through him in reconciliation and intimacy with Hashem.

The lesson learned for me in this is the one I hear the wise investor, the one who didn't lose his/her money, say all the time now...."you cannot trust others, on the basis of faith, with that which you most value."
So while it is true that I need people to to believe in, people to help me see the way....Its also true that nothing is of greater value to me than doing the will of Hashem. And to know His will and that I am aligned with it I will need to investigate carefully before I blindly trust!

Shabbat Shalom