These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem


Posted on September 21, 2010 by Michael

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We have nearly reached the one-month mark in our studies, and I have to wonder at the fact that, until this journey in Israel, I have never taken the time to document my life week by week in a journal. I have to tell you that there is a lot of power in shared journaling. Sharing the journals creates a deeper focus on my inner growth because it pushes me to interpret my experiences in words that others can understand. It also raises the weeks to a higher pitch because I have to make sure that I live in a way that is worth writing about!

In a way, my studies at Pardes have been one long practice in shared journaling. In my different learning partnerships (chavrutahs), my friend and I will work through a text in the original language, and we work to apply the ancient and medieval lessons to our own understandings of ethics, morality, and spirituality. This practice of chavrutah and ‘shared journaling’ has helped to open my awareness to my life’s purpose. By joining in the conversation of my ancestors, I am working to shed my own light on their moral struggles, and then to shed their light on the moral struggles of our own times: and thus my study opens my mind to the idea that all of us are experiencing the continual unfolding of the ‘Global Torah.’ Each day we are all witnessing and hopefully influencing mankind’s effort to recreate heaven on earth. I begin to understand that my own life is a priceless opportunity to play my part in the drama of a global awakening, one ‘chavrutah’ at a time…

When we are with others, do we act with the knowledge that all people are actually divine, and that everyone has the potential to act accordingly? When we interact with others, do we help to remind them that they, like us, come from the Source? Are we aware that when we treat others with this highest level of respect, that they will then go forth to heal the masses of the deceived? This is how to awaken the world through friendship.

Let me back up and describe the more concrete details of my week before I flesh out the moral of this week’s story, which is how to recreate heaven on earth. Of course this was the long-anticipated week of Yom Kippur, and I have to say that this day and the week leading up to it was one of the holiest times of my entire life.

On Wednesday, all of us at Pardes had the special opportunity to go on a retreat to a nearby hostel. This was an opportunity to study with fellow students who are normally outside of our level of learning. The most fascinating lesson was at the end: we analyzed the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Book of Jonah, how Jonah represents the man who runs away from his divine mission by chasing after sensuous pleasures and monetary gain. I’ll stop here, but if there are any die-hard Book of Jonah fans out there, I strongly recommend taking a look at Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the story because it is fascinating and worth the time to read. I think it’s online. The internet really is like a new Library of Alexandria, isn’t it?

Friday was Erev Yom Kippur. My roommates and some guests enjoyed a home cooked meal from my new roommate and mom Elizabeth (just kidding, Mom, you are irreplaceable). After this I headed off for Kol Nidre. Luckily in Jerusalem, there is a minyan on Yom Kippur at just about every street corner, so within minutes I found a service in the chapel of a nursing home. It was actually a beautiful chapel and service. On a deeper level, it was pretty humbling to see the paraplegics wheeled up next to the men fervently praying (davening) for a new year of life.

Of course for anyone who has had the experience of Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, everyone is walking around on the streets because the streets are closed for Yom Kippur. So please, try to imagine that you are walking through a holy city at night all lit up by street lamps and there are crowds and crowds of people dressed in white walking all through the city in no form of logic because there are minyans everywhere, and the kids zoom past you on their bikes because this is also a biking holiday for the little kids, and the sounds of singing voices floating through the air and everything melts into ONE, and it seems like the entire city is praying on Yom Kippur. That is the best I can do to capture the majesty of the day, and this is only the beginning, in the evening…

And there was evening, and there was morning, one day. And here it is: possibly my one and only opportunity to pray Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. This is the dream of every Jew since the slavery of Exile, and here I am, standing in the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, and the sanctuary is nothing short of stunning. It is huge, thousands of people in a hexagon shaped room, and there is a cantor and a mystical choir and an enormous stained glass behind the ark, and it depicts the sephirot and all other sorts of Kabbalistic concepts, and I am in synagogue heaven. I had my eyes closed almost the whole time and the fast only heightened my experience of the awesomeness of the day. I had a meditative experience that I cannot describe, and my words in general are really not doing justice to how I felt that day.

Really the best part was that I ran into two good friends from Pardes, and after praying our hearts out, I feel very close with them, and I feel like I might have made some friends for life. They are two Jewish dudes just like me. We’ve been to college and experienced the partying thing, but here we are now in possibly the holiest city on Earth, and we are here because we want to better ourselves through Torah learning. By the way I feel quite close with many many people from Pardes, girls and guys alike, especially after the retreat. I never knew that I could be ‘normal’ and yet become deeply religious, not in the sense of becoming ultra-Orthodox or closed-off from the world outside Judaism, but in the sense of cultivating a deep and integral relationship with my heritage and with the Infinite One. Pardes is a one-of-a-kind place.

Around three in the afternoon I took a break from the Great Synagogue and I traversed the land of the city of Jerusalem without the logic of the streets. In this I tried to recreate what it was like to walk through Jerusalem when there was no such thing as roads and cars. I dipped down through the buildings and into a small clearing in a hillside forest with a fountain. I took my ‘fast nap’ there on a bench, and I woke up to see the moon shining in the afternoon sky. I continued on down the valley and back up in to the winding walls of the Old City, coming to a stop before the Western Wall. The moon rested in the blue sky up above the wall shining in the golden afternoon, and I closed my eyes and listened to the mixture of the prayers as the fast took a stronger hold and I transcended time as I imagined a pilgrimage of Jews in the Middle Ages. I got up from my chair to walk back, stopping along the way at a minyan in a small underground chapel, before I was once against standing before the grandeur of the sanctuary of the Great Synagogue.

Two more hours of prayer, but they slipped right away, and now the shofar blasts to signal the beginning of the year, and the congregation shouted out ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ Why? Because who knows, Gd forbid they would not be in Jerusalem next year, or that Jerusalem will not be there for the Jews? It is up to all of us to protect this miraculous gift. I know that the soldiers know this. And when I heard that cry IN JERUSALEM, I felt this incredible sadness, because the odds are extremely high that next year I will not be in Jerusalem for Yom Kippur. This was it, at least for a while. Luckily my temporary sadness was relieved with a break-fast with the executive director of the Great Synagogue, thanks to my friend’s connection. This was such fun; great food and people and a veritable opera singer belting out the prayers. Hilarious.

But backing up, in that moment of a sense of loss at the closing of Yom Kippur, I understood the point of the fast, the paradox of the fear and awe and love that we are supposed to feel on Yom Kippur. When my time runs out, do I look back on the past year and feel that I imbued every moment with holiness and purpose and a sense of love for the Infinite One? How much did I focus on satisfying my own desires: did I squander my time in a selfish campaign to do things that would only make me happy? And it was at this moment that I finally approached a full understanding of the mitzvoth—the ritual and ethical commandments in Judaism.

Many people might argue that mitzvoth define the Jewish people. The familiar mitzvoth are giving charity, saying blessings over food and washing hands, studying the Torah, and on and on: the Jews have 613, corresponding to the number of bones plus the number of main arteries and veins in the body. The implication is that one’s entire being should be devoted to Gd, just as the entire being of the Infinite One is devoted to mankind and his awakening…

On Shabbat, we light candles and say a blessing just before the time begins, then we drink wine with a blessing, and finally we eat a special bread called challah and say a blessing. I see this threefold mitzvah as reminding us that MIND (flaming candles), HEART (wine), and BODY (challah) all come from Gd—as gifts on loan—and that it is our job to elevate those gifts back towards the service of the Source. The questions is: how does this threefold mitzvah actually contribute to the elevation of the mind, heart, and body into a place beyond the self? And moreover, for those of us who do not participate in this ritual, how can we learn to elevate our thoughts, emotions, and actions in daily life, in order that we can develop an appreciation for life and our time on Earth?

I’ll leave you with this meditative technique. If you catch yourself rushing through the hallways of the palace of time, crashing into furniture and other things in frustration, not appreciating the joy of your relationship with the Infinite One, just remember this.

1.) EVERYTHING is illuminated by your mind, so that you can learn to understand and be wise. As light shines throughout the day, lighting up everything for the eyes, so too your mind shines throughout the day, lighting up all of Creation in order to develop your brain in deeper understanding. It is ALL here to teach you wisdom and understanding

2.) EVERYTHING interacts with the waters of your emotional life, so that you can learn to love and have compassion. As water flows throughout the earth in all of the low places, graciously granting life to all creatures, so too your heart flows into the deepest darkest corners in order to revive those who are dead to life. It is ALL here to teach you love and compassion.

3.) And EVERYTHING is here for you to act upon, like a giant playground for your growth and the growth of your fellows. Only you must make sure that in your journey through the palace, that in your actions you stop to express your love for the King, and that you work very hard not to mess up His foyer!

It is the beginning of a new year, a whole new opportunity to develop your relationship with Truth. At the final sound of the shofar, I mourned not so much what I had done wrong, but all the moments that I had not sanctified to the Infinite in joy. And so I made a vow at that moment to be joyful and connected with my situation as much as I possibly can; to exclude and combat the dangers of selfishness by focusing on my deep relationship with the Totality of the world and mankind: in all of my deeds to contemplate on my transactional relationship with the infinitely unified planes of the mental, the emotional, and the physical worlds.

Happy New Year,