Divre Harav – February/2022

In the coming months, it is my wish to contact each member of Ahavas Israel and offer to engage in a spiritual checkup. Spirituality concerns making a connection with something higher than yourself. The essence of spirituality is seeking meaning in your life that transcends you as an individual, seeing yourself as a part of something larger than yourself. A Jewish spiritual assessment is an exercise in which you explore your personal set of values, the most important values within Judaism, and the relationship between them. It is not a judgement. It is a snapshot of where you are right now, to be compared to where you want to be five years from now. It uses language of mitzvot and Jewish practices as a starting point coming from Torah, because that’s what unites and drives us as members of a Jewish community.

When I contact you, I hope you’ll join me for a conversation about your spiritual checkup. The goal of the conversation would be to engage in the questions, “Where are you religiously?” “Where do you want to go?” And “How can I/Congregation Ahavas Israel help you get there?” If the thought of doing this kind of spiritual work interests you, please call me to set up a time. If you think you have nothing to learn from such an exercise, I’d ask you to consider, what would you lose by giving it a try?

I have a list of specific questions to guide our conversation. If you wish, you may think or journal about them in advance.

  • Where do you have Shabbat in your life? Where do you need it?
  • How can you experience mindful eating?
  • What do you give of yourself?
  • How can you be mindful of your speech?
  • How are you engaging in Talmud Torah, what Jewish books are you reading and studying?
  • How do I approach difficult issues?
  • Where are you in your life-goals and relationships (including your relationship to Judaism)?
  • Where would you like to be in five years?
  • How has your practice of Judaism helped your spiritual life?
  • How can Ahavas Israel help you get there, or facilitate or further your goals?
  • A time I felt close to God was when:
  • A time I felt distant from God was when:
  • The Jewish practices/teachings I especially value are:
  • The Jewish practices/teachings I have trouble with are:
  • My general feeling about coming to services is: 
  • I feel connected to our congregation and the Jewish community. True or false. Please explain.

Note: In last month’s Divre Harav, I accidentally omitted Esther Bookbinder from the list of those supporting our Shabbat service and the weekday morning Zoom minyan. I apologize to Esther. To any others whom I omitted, please know that it is not a deliberate slight, just my imperfect memory.

Psalm 134

“Who stand nightly in the house of Adonai …” (134:1)

For those who want to build a strong spiritual core, there is no substitute for doing the hard work of prayer, study, and meditation, along with taking care of their physical self with good nutrition and exercise. This is a daily regimen of spirit-building, training themselves to be aware of their place in the world as beings created in the image of God. Goodness and connectedness do not come naturally, but only over time do they develop an innate sense of what is right and true.

A Walker Among Those Who Stand

Leviticus 18:4 teaches:  “You shall observe my rules, and keep my laws, to walk in them, I am YHVH [your God].”

Our job, according to Leviticus 18:4 is to walk in God’s rules and laws.  We are supposed to be walkers and movers, as in Zachariah 3:7:

Thus said YHVH of Hosts: If you walk in My paths and keep My charge, you in turn will rule My House and guard My courts, and I will make you walkers among those standing there.

There are many people who are just “standing there;” who live their lives inside a narrow box, always doing the same things, eating the same foods, watching the same types of movies and television program, reading the same kinds of books.  You know the type – they are the kind of people who run away from change.  When they have the chance to do something different, they avoid it at all costs.  They like the way things are right now – change, by definition, is negative and to be avoided.  Is this such a bad thing?  Halakha doesn’t change, does it?  Keeping kosher, reciting the Shema, praying regularly, wearing tefillin and giving tzedakah every day (except Shabbat) – all of this is a routine mandated by God’s laws and rules.  Standing firm on God’s laws without compromise is a good thing, right?

Right, except it seems to be better to be a walker than a stander.  So who are the walkers?  What do they do?  The Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efrayim, author of the Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, taught:

All that we do – in Torah study, in prayer, in keeping the mitzvot and doing good deeds – is directed toward raising up the Shekhinah to unite her with Her Husband.

A person is called a “walker (holekh),” for people are constantly moving from one spiritual stage to another, either diminishing in capacity, or increasing in awareness each day upward and upward. This is the intent of our verse, “You shall observe my rules, and keep my laws, to walk in them” from stage to stage (level to level), all with the focus of “I am YHVH.”

Walkers are also people who devote themselves to Jewish practices, to mitzvot, just like standers.  The walkers, however, are open to learning to do things differently.  Not abandoning traditional practices necessarily, but finding new and meaningful ways to enhance those practices.

Kashrut, for example, is all about eating kosher food — but it could also be about eating healthy food, grown in sustainable, cruielty-free ways?   It could also be about the ethics of food production.

Walkers occasionally stumble.  Not every movement is going to be up the spiritual ladder towards increasing awareness.  Some movements are going to be downward, spiritually deflating.  But in order to reach the highest possible elevation, we need to risk the occasional falls.  Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim concludes his lesson in good mystical fashion:

That is, we are to join and unite “I (ani)” – another name for the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) – with “YHVH.” This is the combination of HVY”H (that is, YHW”H) and ADN”Y, the unification of the blessed Holy One and His Shekhinah.

Rather than focus solely on the mechanics of a mitzvah, the mystical tradition encourages us to focus on the goal of the mitzvah — to unite God’s presence down here on earth with the Infinite and unknowable mysterious Holy One, of Blessing.  He encourages us to be open to new paths towards the recognition and enactment of God’s unity.  He asks us to use God’s rules and laws, to direct all of our Torah study, prayers, mitzvot, and good deeds towards the union of the Shekhinah and the Kadosh Barukh Hu.

R. Moshe Chaim Efrayim of Sudylkov is the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.  He was born in 1742 or 1748 and died in 1800, on the eve of Lag Ba’omer (this year, his yahrtzeit will be the coming Shabbat).