Friday, January 9, 2009

Hey, Don't I Know You From Somewhere?

Preparation is a big thing in Judaism. Before we do anything, we prepare. Before Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we begin long daily services to prepare our souls for judgment through the meditative repentance of slichos. Before Pesach, we clean our belongings…everything from the family car to the pages of any books that might have been open while eating, lest we miss a speck of chometz (leven). In the case of Shabbos, we immediately begin to prepare for the next one as soon as the current Shabbos ends. Not only does this pertain to holidays, but also to every-day commandments.

Before morning prayers, we chant Tehillim (Psalms) and other Nach-based liturgy called “Pesukei d’Zimra”, or “Verses of Praise”. The Noam Elimelech (early Chasidic commentator) relates the word for “praiseful song” (zimra) to the word for “pruning” (zamar). How can we make sense of the connection between these words? The Noam Elimelech finds that the connection is that the two hold the same quality: the ability to remove that which is bad. For the Noam Elimelech, the purpose of preparation was to rid oneself of the negative thoughts that get in the way of deeply connecting to the moment. The same is true with “Pesukei d’Zimra”. The verses are put in place to be a meditative and forceful way of ridding the mind of clutter before really getting down to business (i.e. praying with deep intent).

Haman, the villain of the story of Esther, tried to have the Jews of Persia killed by saying that they went against the king. He claimed that every day the Jews refused to work, saying “Today is Pesach”, and “Today is Shabbos”. In regard to Haman’s accusation, the Noam Elimelech admits that the reality of this claim is impossible. The Jews of the exile would certainly not lie, claiming that it is a Holy Day when it wasn’t true. Instead, Reb Elimelech states that immense preparation was the source of the Jews’ claims. Because they had such intent when preparing for a mitzvah, it was as if they were already fulfilling it. Many of that day’s Jews prepared so carefully and deeply for Shabbos, that not a day went by without moving them into the awe and relaxation of Shabbos. Similarly, their deep reflection and repentance over even the minor “crumbs” of sins made everyday like Pesach.

Because we are human beings, and we allow our imperfection to cloud our merit, we cannot all assume that our preparation is perfect, and we might still find ourselves lacking. What can be done to lessen our inability to fully “prune” the negative klippos (vessels) reminding us of our doubts? The comments of the Gemara on this weeks parsha (Torah portion) answer this. We see in the parsha that, as Yaakov (Jacob) calls his sons around him to tell them the secrets of the “End of Days”, the shechina (“Divine Presence”) leaves Yaakov. Shocked that the shechina would leave him, Yaakov begins to worry that perhaps one of his sons was unworthy to hear such secrets, a son akin to Eisav and Yishmoel (Esau and Ishmael). Sensing their father’s fears, Yaakov’s twelve sons recite, “Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad” (“Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one”). In response to this, Yaakov responds “Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuso L’olam V’oed” (“Blessed is the name of his glorious kingdom for all eternity”).

With such an integral exchange originating in this form, it seems strange that it is not found in the Written Torah (as opposed to the Oral Tradition). The reason rests in the purpose of uttering the phrase. When Yaakov said the words, he was, in a sense, admitting his momentary fade through his worries about the quality of his children. In fact, Reb Moshe Feinstein z”l says that this is the deeper meaning of the order and inclusion of the exchange at the central position of daily prayer. When they said, “Shema, Yisroel”, Yaakov’s sons broke decorum and addressed their father by his name. However, this name was not just any name; it was the name he received from the angel, indicating that he is one who “wrestles with G-d”. When addressing this quality in their father, they reminded him that just as he has faith and a direct relationship with the Ultimate Truth, so did they. In his reply, Yaakov uses the image and reminder of the eternality and fullness of G-d’s promise to revive him. This is true of the verses inclusion in our own prayer, we, in the first verse, speak to ourselves (we are each part of Yisroel, those who wrestle with G-d), and remind ourselves that our essence still keeps faith with the truth. As a means of remediation for our perceived lack of faith and dulling from the world, we recite Yaakov’s revitalizing claim, that we are part of an eternal system, thus reawakening our sense of reverence for G-d.

The same is true of when we do mitzvos improperly or make mistakes as a result of lack of preparation and intent. When one makes an accidental bracha (blessing) in vain, and thereby vocalizes the full name of G-d aloud without cause, the person is supposed to say “Baruch shem k’vod…”, the words uttered by Yaakov to revitalize himself. Therefore, though we have the potential to engulf ourselves so much in the preparation of mitzvos that we make no mistake, there is still a way to alleviate physical human shame that the opposite might cause, and that is by refocusing on the essential truth. However, even when doing this, we must whisper the words. Reb Moshe Feinstein, z”l, says that this is because we should, essentially, “be ashamed” of our need to have this internal dialogue. How could a person, something created in the image of G-d (b’tzelem Elokim), have such doubts? Therefore, we are not permitted to speak the words out lout, with the fear that we might internalize too much of the shame by dwelling on this admittance.

Just as we should prepare for overtly spiritual acts, we must also prepare for that which we face in life. Before making a change, we should meditate upon that which is approaching, and on our current level and role (or “where we’re holding”, for those of the frummer velt). This preparation allows us to have sort of "Hello there, don't I know you? Oh yes, that's the real me" moments over and over again. It seems strange to be at a point where I need to do this. All of my life things have been, more or less, pretty secure. Now, however, I am making a choice to take myself across the globe to sit in a dusty classroom in a war-torn country, where I will spend all day learning more intently to raise the fallen sparks of Creation, to “prune back" the klipos of negative forces with “(preparative) songs of praise“. I will take one step closer to finding the ability to prepare with perfect intention; to live a more connected life, bringing me to a greater knowledge of the world, myself, and G-d in general. The more this is done, and truly integrated into our lives, the more we come to see and know G-d in the preparation as well as the mitzvah, the pain as well as the pleasure…the journey as well as the answer.

As the Rambam said in his Moreh Nevuchim, “…man’s love of G-d is identical with his knowledge of Him”…

(Perhaps I've been reading too much of the Baal HaSulam.)

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