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Entry Level Meditation

11 Feb

As one who teaches Jewish mystical texts as well as meditation based upon Jewish sources, I have to field some good questions from my students.  For example, “what am I supposed to feel when I meditate?”  Or, “I’m not feeling anything, what am I doing wrong?”  Or, “how do I know if I’m doing this correctly?”  The answers are very much dependent upon the individual, but in general, no one should expect to “feel anything” in the early stages of meditation.  We should just make sure that we are focused properly on the concepts and then the feelings, such as they are, will flow spontaneously.  It does not happen overnight.  Only with much practice and study do we become proficient enough to experience a little bit of love and fear of God during our meditation.  Moreover, it is a mistake to focus on what we are “feeling.”  Our goal should be to become as butel, or “nullified” to God as possible, and one who is nullified is not aware of his own feelings.  In fact, he is not aware of himself at all.  He only knows that he is not a worthy “vessel” for Godly illumination and therefore he focuses upon the techniques of improving himself and understanding Godly concepts as well as possible.  The rest will follow on its own.

Nevertheless, there is one “technique,” if it can be called that, which allows us to directly perceive the source.  In Chasidic literature, it is called, “gazing upon the glory of the King.”  The experienced meditator will occasionally find that he does not need to meditate in the morning, because on that particular occasion, he is directly in touch with something beyond himself.  In such a situation, he should not “fight it,” by forcing himself to meditate upon intellectual concepts of Godliness.  Rather, he should sit back and enjoy the gift that God has given him from above, and “gaze upon the glory of the King,” – that is, follow the experience to wherever it takes him.  At that point, it is possible that active intellectual meditation would get in the way of, rather than facilitate, his flow of divine emotion.  Nevertheless, for most of us, this kind of Godly epiphany is a rare occurrence.  On the vast majority of occasions, we will need to work hard and focus for long minutes in order to well understand and internalize Godly concepts that form the basis of our meditation.

There are some who ask, “Rabbi, what are you talking about?  I have no time for meditation, no time for thinking about spiritual concepts, and I’m lucky to get to synagogue, put on my tefillin, mumble a few words, and leave in time for work.”  Without doubt, such people are to be respected and encouraged, for they are honorably fulfilling their obligations and raising wonderful families.  Still, there is a halacha (Jewish law) to take into consideration, requiring us to “think about the greatness of God and the lowliness of man” before praying.  But, for others, the problem is that they are just plain skeptical, and they don’t think that us mortals can get closer to God and actually experience spirituality.  If that’s you, then let me make a suggestion:  Go out to the Israeli desert.  Make sure you arrive to the Judean desert or the Negev or the Sinai desert around 8 in the morning, when virtually nobody is around.  And just sit there and listen.  And listen some more.  And if you don’t hear anything, just wait another five or ten minutes.  The word for desert in Hebrew is midbar, spelt exactly the same as medaber, which means “speak.”  If after a half an hour you don’t hear the desert speaking to you, you may need hearing aids.  The desert is where the Jews heard and saw Godliness, and received the Torah.  It is the place where God first communicated with the Jewish people (individuals such as the forefathers found God in other environments).  It is the source of the Jewish spiritual experience, and it is where we can all return to in order to renew it and rejuvenate (some say re”Jew”venate) our experience.  Of course, there is something more you can do to examine Jewish prayers and meditation – go to our website, at www.jewishspiritualbooks.com  Or check out the latest blog at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly   Finally, for a quick rundown on what Chabad in Jerusalem has to offer you, go to www.chabadjerusalem.org  And have a great week!

Pass the Fruit Please!

5 Feb

You might think that a Jewish festival occurring in the middle of the winter would be a cold event.  Not here in Jerusalem.  Our Tu b’Shvat seder took place on a warm winter day, one of quite a few that we have experienced lately.  There’s something very uplifting about Tu b’Shvat.  The emphasis on renewal and regeneration, celebrated over four cups of wine and the fruits of Israel puts a positive spin on the entire winter.  Moreover, the idea that growth begins from “less than zero,” is a very powerful concept.  When the first shoots of the new year push their heads up from underground this month, they are not in a friendly environment.  The ground has not yet thawed and the sun is not generally shining; it’s the depth of winter.  The corollary in human experience is that real growth does not necessarily begin from a zero.  It may begin from adversity, from less than comfortable circumstances.  From the adversity is born greatness.  On another level, we experience renewal and rejuvenation not only every year, but every day.  That is the subject of our current Tefila Tip, that you can read at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  Getting up in the morning is not simple, and we need a high light from above to launch our daily routine.  For deeper analysis of Jewish prayer and meditation, check out www.jewishspiritualbooks.com and finally to get a perspective on spiritual life in Jerusalem, go to www.chabadjerusalem.org  Happy Tu b’Shvat!

Tefila Tip #9, Morning Coffee and Blessings

27 Jan

If you’re anything like me, a strong cup of coffee in the morning is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.  My sluggishness is matched only by my grouchiness upon rising in the morning.  My friends know to give me a wide berth before roughly ten AM.  I’m not proud of this, but I accept it as one of my limitations.  I have learned to keep my mouth shut in the morning rather than get in any verbal spats with those unprepared for my morning mood.  And yet, I admit, there must be a better way of dealing with this murky attitude…

So, I wondered, what could be the spiritual root of my morning grouchiness.  In this case, the search was made easier by a Chasidic discourse that discusses the spiritual root of the morning blessings that we say upon arising.  The discourse compares the morning blessings to an event that occurs during this week’s Torah portion (Beshalach) – the exodus from Egypt.

The Exodus occurred when the Jews were not ready for it.  There was no way that they could prepare for such an event, since they themselves were very attached to their lives in Egypt.  Egypt – Mitzrayim in Hebrew – means “limitations.”  There’s no way you could live in Egypt and not be limited, spiritually, physically, emotionally.  Egypt was the land of occult sciences – the Egyptians knew how to “work on” their subjects to make them think that there was no way they could leave.  And so, by the time the Exodus came around, most of the Jews were no longer thinking of leaving.  It required a huge, supernatural boost from Above to remove the Jews from their state of limitations in Egypt.  A huge burst of spiritual light blasted the Jews free from the occult framework that the Egyptians had spun around them.  They couldn’t remove themselves from bondage of their own accord; action was required from Above.

The Chasidic discourse goes on to state that we are in a similar state every morning when we arise.  Sleeping is a mostly physical activity that places emphasis on the body.  We don’t think, we don’t feel, we merely rest our body.  So, when we awaken, we are more physical than spiritual.  It takes some time to work off the last vestiges of sleep.  In the meantime, we are bound and limited by our body, until our intellect and emotion begin to operate and we begin to function like human beings.  And, similar to the exodus from Egypt, it requires a high spiritual light to remove us from our stupor and launch us into avodat Hashem – “divine service.”  What provides the impetus?  What supplies the high light from Above that launches our day?  It’s the morning blessings.  When we bless the essential name of God, the name of Havaya, we bring down a blast of His infinite light, that similar to the exodus from Egypt, lifts us out of limitations.  Each of the eighteen morning blessings conveys an aspect of His infinite light that has the power to lift us out of limitations and kick-start our day.

Of course, given this explanation, it wasn’t necessary for me to look much further for the source of my morning mood.  When you arise and find yourself in limitations, half asleep, unable (for the moment) to concentrate or feel anything, it makes you “grouchy.”  But, among the things that I learned from the Chasidic discourse is that it’s the morning blessings that set us free, not the morning coffee…

We are not always capable of finding the spiritual source of our physical experiences below.  There are two ways in which we may succeed; either we can meditate well and properly to achieve the necessary spiritual level to solve the problem, or we can take advice from someone who has “been there before” and can report back to us.  If you want to know how I solved this quandary, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly.  There you will find a detailed account of how to arise and overcome your morning grouchiness.  If you’d like to know more about Jewish meditation and prayer, try our suite of books and www.jewishspiritualbooks.com.  And if you just want to know what’s happening in Jerusalem, try www.chabadjerusalem.org  Stay warm and cozy…

Heed the Voices

21 Jan

A couple years ago, a friend of mine read the Purim scroll with different voices.  He read it with the voice of Mordecai, with the voice of Haman, with the voice of Esther and the voice of Vashti, among others.  That awakened me to a new fact of life – there are a lot of voices and personalities vying for our attention.  And being humans, we can better understand ourselves and the Torah by tuning into the voice or character vying for our attention at any given time.  Even the simplest person is “inhabited” by many characters.  And since we are a very old nation, there are some wise and venerable voices demanding our collective attention.  So, why ignore them?  Each has a personality, and each expresses himself.  A good psychologist can help decipher which voices occupy our psyche, and a good rabbi can help decipher which spiritual character seeks expression through our soul.  If we remain unaware of “who is talking,” we run the risk of total confusion and chaos.  The same applies to Torah and to tefila.  Knowing whose doing the talking, during prayer and study, is key.  Once we know their perspective and their goals, our avodat Hashem (“spiritual service”) will go much smoother.  It is not necessary to remain reactive during learning and prayers.  We can be proactive, and then the rest falls into place…for more information, check out our latest Tefila tip (#8), at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly.  Or, delve deeper into Jewish meditation and prayer, at www.jewishspiritualbooks.com.  Or just browse what’s happening in Jerusalem, at www.chabadjerusalem.org   Good stuff going on round the clock…

A brief European Detour

13 Jan

We usually send out some weekly words of spirituality, but this week we cannot resist a piece of historical commentary, based on recent events.  Let us ask the following:  Do you think that the huge march in Paris was all about France and Europe suddenly awakening to the Islamic terror in their midst?  Do you really believe that after years of pretending that jihadist attacks on innocent human beings have nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with downtrodden Muslim populations in Europe, that all of sudden the French authorities are waking up?  And that now they will name jihadi terrorism for what it is, a hateful Islamic manifestation?  Personally, I don’t think so.  When the French authorities treat the Israeli Prime Minister like a leper and mention “terror against Jews” only out of the sides of their mouths, there has been no transformation here.

To understand what’s really going on, we have to look deeper.  In fact, we need to go back to the beginnings of Jewish life in Europe.  Recently there was an article about how Ashkenazi Jews all come from a small group of 350 Jews who settled in Europe.  In fact, those Jews settled in the Rhine area in what is now Western Germany and Eastern France.  They were there in the time of Charlemagne, before there existed what we now know of as Germany and France.  So, there was never such a thing as Europe without Jews.  The current prime minister of France, Mr. Manuel Valls, stated that, “Without the Jews, there is no France.”  Looking at the big picture, the large historical canvas of European history, we can take Mr. Vall’s statement one step further and confidently declare, “Without the Jews there will be no Europe.”  We wonder if this isn’t the time to make that happen.

And now back to our normal routine.  We would like to direct you to our “Tefila tip #7,” a brief commentary on the Jewish spiritual routine in the morning.  You can find it at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly   And if that’s not enough for you and you want to learn all about Jewish prayer and meditation, try www.jewishspiritualbooks.com  And if what interests you is Chabad in Jerusalem, so check out our website, www.chabadjerusalem.org 

Tefila Tips #6

7 Jan

Until now, we have been focused on hoda’ah, or expression of gratitude and acknowledging God’s presence as we arise in the morning.  This week, we will focus on what we do, not just what we say, upon arising in the morning.

So, it turns out that when we sleep at night, and our body goes into deep relaxation, a spirit of tumah, or impurity descends upon us.  Let’s look at that Hebrew word – tumah.  It comes from the word atum, meaning “closed,” or “trapped within.”  And that describes what happens when a person is unable to ascend, spiritually – he is trapped within his own physical body, unable to make a connection with the One above.  That describes our status upon awakening in the morning.  Sleep brings a spiritual price with it, and that is a spirit of tumah, or “spiritual entrapment” that accompanies us when we wake up.  But, not to worry – the sages determined that this impurity leaves the rest of our body and becomes concentrated in our hands when we wake up.  That is because it is our hands – our extremities – that interface with the world.  Therefore, the hands are the place where negative spiritual forces attach themselves.  The hands and feet are the most vulnerable parts of the body, since they come into direct contact with the world.  And that is why the spirit of tumah, or impurity that resided in our body during sleep, comes to be located in our hands when we awaken.

So, here is how we remove the tumah, or spiritual impurity.  We place a covered bowl of water next to our bed and, without getting out of bad, wash our hands every morning when we awaken.  Why water?  Because it is colorless, tasteless and formless, and therefore it represents the highest form of undefinable Godliness – chochma – that comes down to reside with us in this world.  Also because water flows down from a high place to a low place, as does pure spirituality.  And therefore it has the ability to drive away the tumah on our hands.  Even though the best way to do this early morning hand-washing is by our bedside (and so is stated in both the Shulchan Aruch Harav, and also the Mishnah Berura), many people get up and go to the bathroom to wash.  However, the Zohar is strict on this matter, telling us not to walk even four cubits (two meters) without washing, and that is why the best way to wash “negel wasser” is by the bed before arising.

For more on prayer and meditation according to the Jewish tradition, check out our Tefila Tips (tips on Jewish prayer), at www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly  Plus, delve a little deeper with our suite of spiritual books, at www.jewishspiritualbooks.com. And finally, for just a little something on what’s going on in Jerusalem, try www.chabadjerusalem.org

Gratitude on all Levels (Tefila Tip #5)

1 Jan

This week, we continue what we started last week – how to get up in the morning.  We pointed out that our gratitude to God when we arise in the morning, saying Modeh ani (“I am grateful…”) is lefanecha – “to You” – meaning directly to God, to His very essence.  From us to Him.  This is called “General submission” or “General acknowledgment.”  Since our mind and our heart are not yet “in play,” our acknowledgment comes from our basic, essential selves, and also accesses the highest most essential Godliness.

So, what happens when we begin to use specific attributes of our personality during prayers?  At that point we engage in “specific acknowledgment,” or gratitude  based on specific attributes, such as emotions and/or intellect.  For example, when we begin our prayers in the synagogue with the words, Hodu Lashem – “I am grateful to God” – we engage our emotions.  At that point in prayers, we are involved in fear of God, or in the awareness that He watches our each and every move and therefore we must be careful.  A little later in prayer, we become involved in love of God, expressing our appreciation for His ability to create from nothing to something.  At that point we acknowledge Him with our love.  So, after arising in the morning and beginning prayers, we acknowledge God while expressing fear and love of Him.  In Chasidut, this occurs on the soul-level of ruach within nefesh, or perhaps our nefesh ascends to the level of ruach within us.

Finally, during the pinnacle of prayers, we acknowledge God with our intellect.  As we recite Modim anachnu lach (“We are grateful/acknowledge You…”) during Shemonah esreh, while bowing slightly at the waist, we admit that even after all of our investigations, mental gymnastics and meditation, we still do not know who God is.  This is specific acknowledgment on the level of intellect.  It occurs during the highest levels of prayer, as we cleave to God, and it proves that as accomplished as we might be in knowledge, fear and love of God, we are still nothing before Him, and therefore we nullify ourselves to Him.  This “specific acknowledgment” occurs on the soul level of neshama or higher.

Like this? If so, have a look at our suite of spiritual books at www.jewishspiritualbooks.com   And if you are interested in Chasidut and Jerusalem, try www.chabadjerusalem.org