These and Those

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

Meditation and the Negev

Posted on November 8, 2010 by Michael

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I am reading a fascinating book by Aryeh Kaplan called Jewish Meditation. It is practical as a guide to develop the spirit through at least thirty minutes of daily meditation in a completely Jewish manner. By the way, he talks about how the central prayer of Judaism, the Shemonah Esrei (meaning 18 prayers), otherwise known as the Amidah (meaning standing), was instituted by the rabbis of the Great Assembly after the destruction of the Second Temple as a way to maintain the strong meditative tradition in Judaism. He explained that the prophets of the bible were basically experts in meditation and that a majority of the people of ancient Israel practiced meditation on a daily basis.

What happened according to Kaplan was that with the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersion of Jews into exile , there was a major risk that the Jewish people would disintegrate and fall into the meditative traditions of other nations that bordered on idolatry. In fact, one of his major points was that Judaism was a polemic against ‘quick-and-easy’ meditative traditions that did not require the strict discipline of Judaism, where the object of contemplation, be it the Self or an outside object, would be worshiped instead of Gd.

Therefore the Sages closed the door to the masses on esoteric Jewish meditation and refocused Judaism on the more academic study of Torah in order to keep the nation in tact. Again this was a difficult decision because it limited the meditative pillar of Judaism, but it turned out to be the best decision because otherwise it is probably unlikely that the Jewish nation would have stayed in tact if it continued on the way that it was in exile. But as we see, these days Kabbalah, which had remained very closed off and secretive, is not all over the book stores and online, and it became popular again with the Chasidic movement, not to mention its resurgence in the 13th century with the Zohar.

By the way, the focus in the weekly Torah portion has been on the second patriarch, Isaac, who ‘dug wells.’ As it occurs almost constantly in the Torah, this has a literal and a figurative meaning. He dug wells in the ground, but the oral tradition states that this also means that he ‘dug wells’ internally, meaning that he was a highly spiritual, perhaps an expert in meditation.

Isaac often gets passed over in our discussions because he seems to be the least sensational of the patriarchs. First of all, this is not necessarily so, because if you pay attention you will see that Isaac was 37 years old at the time of the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac). He had to go willingly with his father to be sacrificed.

But besides that, I was hearing a shiur (lesson) from Rabbi Meir about how Isaac might in fact be the ideal patriarch. First of all, he never left Israel, and the sages say that he was close to perfect. He was also the only one of the three patriarchs to make total peace with his neighbors: he eats and drinks with Avimelekh and makes peace with him, even though this king had been terrorizing Isaac and threatening Isaac by filling up the wells that were his source of life.

Rabbi Meir explained that Isaac represents diligence and humility. He may not have fought wars against kings or wrestled an angel, but all his life he slowly but surely worked towards greater and greater heights of spirit. This is what meditation is all about. It takes discipline and a commitment to daily practice, but the cumulative effects bring the practitioner closer and closer to an experience of Gdly Unity. Again, Kaplan’s book Jewish Meditation is a great practical start.

The coolest thing about this shiur is that Rav Meir was giving it right in the middle of our wonderful Negev Tiyul! (a tiyul means a trip or a hike in Hebrew). This was probably the most fun I’ve had so far in Israel. I love hiking and this was three days worth. Every night we would come back to this totally unique place that was sort of outdoors, like a big Bedouin tent but with mattresses and rec games and even a Jacuzzi for after a long day of hiking.

My favorite part thought about the Tiyul, besides strengthening friendships and making new friends, was the silence. When Rabbi Meir was giving his shiur, we were sitting cross legged on a the ground in a circle while he sat up on a chair, and the stars were shining and basically not another sound was heard. It is astounding how palpable the silence is when you get away from the city and the cars. It talks about this in the story of Elijah the prophet: the ‘still small voice’ is better translated as ‘a thin voice of immense silence.’ It is like the overpowering silence that is ‘thin’ because it is a subtle but major switch between experiencing the unity of silence and the fragmentation of noise.

Of course the Negev Desert was the supreme place of silence, and there you could have the rare experience of seeing for miles in all directions, and hearing nothing but the wind kicking up sand every now and then, and the silent omnipresence of the stone and the sun. There is an idea that Judaism—which was basically the first abstract monotheistic religion—could have only come from an experience of wandering through a desert where there are basically no seasons, where the mind is confronted with an astounding consistency of landscape day after day. Then the mind is more primed to absorb the Truth of an Eternal One that holds and sustains and continually breathes into all of the world.

The final idea: I am beginning to understand that the world around me is very similar to a language or a grammar. Just as no word exists in isolation and is totally dependent on the surrounding words and grammar in order to make sense, the same goes for all of the manifold aspects of the Creation that surrounds us. In other words, every word has a function only in relation to other words; so too, every form of matter and energy is intrinsically bound up with and depends on the rest of Creation. What we are experiencing right now is a great system of language, and we are expressions in that language.

Gd, then, is the unnamable space of Language, the Silence that makes expression possible. In you there is the potential to speak and do, and in the world there is the potential to be. Gd is the Silence, the One Space of Existence that speaks Himself into existence, and He is revealed most explicitly in human beings and in their relationship with Him. He breathes Himself into Himself, and that is what we are trying to experience through prayer, meditation, and a life of love, compassion, and disciplined character. I believe it is not enough just to talk about these things on an intellectual level, and so we have to do certain deeds that will bring us closer and closer to an experience of this Truth. This is kavannah, which literally means ‘to aim,’ to direct one’s actions and intentions at Gdliness. Can we find a system that will aim us at uncovering the Divine within ourselves and within the world?