Mah Tovu

I recently added “Mah Tovu” to the beginning of our morning meditation playlist. The lyrics of Mah Tovu are text from Torah, and the English translation is “How lovely are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” This text appears in a story about a man who had been sent to curse the Israelites, but upon looking at their camp, instead uttered that compliment.

It is true that Shabbat Morning Service sometimes begins with Mah Tovu. I don’t know when or why the song began to be used that way (and I suppose some day I should look into that!!). But the fact that it is used to open services is not why I added it to our playlist; my reasoning is never quite that straightforward! 🙂

About seven years ago, I was listening to music recorded in pre-state Israel in the 1920’s and 1930’s, because listening to music is the easiest way to hear Hebrew on a daily basis. Toward the end of an otherwise secular song, the singer sang the lyrics of Mah Tovu, and then went seamlessly back to the secular lyrics. I was surprised by the presence of those words of Torah in a song of those early Pioneers, many of whom were socialists and atheists. I asked my Hebrew teacher about it, and we had a wonderful discussion about the devotion those Jewish Pioneers had to the Torah as a historical text that connected them to the land. I learned that evening about the disconnect between atheism and ignorance, about how the first need not be caused by, or result in, the second. The song’s anomaly was resolved for me.

Then, in May of 2007, I went to Israel to connect myself to the land. After a ten-day guided tour, I stayed at Kibbutz Ein Harod, one of the early socialist kibbutzim established in Israel. Hanging on the wall in the Kibbutz Archives was a very large print of an amazing panoramic photograph of the kibbutz in its early years — with children playing, men and women working, and . . . rows of white tents … Mah Tovu!!! “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” — that pre-State Israel song that I had heard years earlier took on a whole new meaning, because I suddenly understood that, for the early Pioneers, those words were not just biblical text about an event that happened more than 2000 years earlier; those words were a statement about the Pioneers’ own existence!

Despite the fact that those kibbutz tents were set up near swamps, which made malaria a problem; that jackals and hyena could be heard roaming the area at night; and that, from time to time, other people would attack the kibbutz to rob and plunder … without a doubt, for any Zionist, those were the most beautiful tents that had ever existed on this planet, because inside those tents slept the brave souls who were creating a new Jewish reality. And this — using Mah Tovu as a statement about ourselves, perhaps not an entirely accurate statement, but a statement full of hope for the future — brings us to why I added the song to the beginning of the morning meditation playlist . . .

One of those old Hasidic Masters described the proper focus to maintain during contemplative prayer in this way:
As you stand before G-d in prayer,
you should feel that you stand alone-
in all the world only you and G-d exist.
Then there can be no distractions;
Nothing can disturb such prayer.

GREEN & HOLTZ, Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer, p. 95 (Jewish Lights Publishing 1993).

However, the chapel in which we pray each morning is not what one would call “sound-proof.” Even with the doors closed and our music on, we can hear noise from the street, people walking in the hall, rain on the roof, discussion from the conference room next door, birds chirping in the trees outside, and pretty much anything else that happens in the vicinity. Some days, I can easily allow all extraneous sounds to blend into the “background hum of the universe” in such a way that it all becomes part of “The One” and the sounds are no more distracting than my own breathing or heartbeat. Other days, I really struggle to attain the proper focus!

My addition of Mah Tovu is an attempt to help myself focus on the days that I might otherwise struggle. The five and a half minutes during which Mah Tovu plays is my opportunity to figuratively “pitch my tent” and create a space in which I can close out the world, be completely alone, and focus on my prayers. Once I settle into my tent, then I am ready to be blessed with feeling the light of G-d’s presence (Barcheinu Avinu), to allow my soul to soar (Niggun Neshamah), and to dance (Adon Olam, Ein Keloheinu, Simon Tov).

Does it always work? Of course not, because I don’t really have a sound-proof tent around myself!! But that doesn’t mean that I cannot, just like those early Jewish Pioneers, use the ancient lyrics of that song to alter the way I interact with or understand my less-than-ideal physical reality! I can have hope, and I can feel blessed . . .

If all else fails, I will have at least proudly taken my place in the long line of Abraham’s descendants who pitched a tent as we wandered! 🙂

לך לך — Go to you!

לך לך — “Lekh L’kha” — Go to you!
No one can do it for you.
You must journey alone.
Go find your place!

It’s a big scary world.
Not safe and easy like Gan Eden.
But G-d promised to show you your place.

You’ll mislead yourself.
You’ll be misled by others.
Struggling to understand your place.

Fight battles with man.
Argue incessantly with G-d.
There is no known map to your place.

Where you go isn’t important.
Over time, the journey teaches.
Inside you, you carry your place.

Inspired by this week’s Torah Portion,
Lekh L’kha, Genesis 12:1 – 17:27,
and the story of Jacob/Israel.

“The Thing”

I recently ran across another great example of “The Thing” … you know, The Thing that drew me to Judaism a decade ago; The Thing that causes me to obsess about studying Judaism, so that I can untangle the mystery for myself, and then explain it to my kids and my wife, to my friends, and …[does it sound too big a delusion of grandeur to say aloud??]… to the world.

Regarding the origin of Shabbat, Rabbi Bernard M. Zlotowitz explained:

According to traditional Jewish belief, the Sabbath has its origin in God’s divine command to observe the seventh day as a day of rest and sanctification.

Scholars, on the other hand, are divided in their opinion concerning the origin of the Sabbath, although they all agree that it was borrowed from another culture.
* Babylonia – Some scholars contend that its origin is Babylonian. The Babylonians believed that the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of the month (flowing the phases of the moon) were evil days and, therefore, the physician, the oracular priest, and the king ceased all labor on those days. The cessation of work on the day they called Sabattu was based upon fear and had no relation to the biblical concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest, joy, and refreshment of the soul.
* Canaan – Other scholars contend that the Hebrews borrowed the concept from the Canaanites, whose primitive agricultural calendar was based on a seven-day week. The Canaanites regarded the number seven to be evil and unlucky, a potential source of ill fortune to be avoided at all costs. They viewed this final day of the week as one on which evil spirits abounded and, therefore, as a day on which human labor would not prosper.

The ancient Hebrews, however, transformed this negative character of the seventh day into one of joy, refraining from labor because it was a day of gladness of the spirit. None of the scholarly theories explain how and why the Jews, who were supposed to have borrowed the Sabbath from the Canaanites or Babylonians, accomplished this transformation.

Essay in, AN INVITATION TO SHABBAT, by Ruth Perlson (N.Y.: URJ Books & Music, 1997) (emphasis and formatting modified).

And there, my friends, is “The Thing”: the Jews transformed a weekly day of evil, fear, and misfortune into a weekly day of joy and celebration of life. That transformation of bad to good, of celebrating the joy of simply being alive, even in the face of evil…

• it is the basis of the joke that summarizes every Jewish Holiday: “They tried to kill us, we lived, let’s eat!”
• it is the mindset that allowed the Hasidim to dance and sing praises to Adonai as they were led into the Nazi gas chambers.
• it explains why my friend, who was eight years old at the time, remembers being awoken for a huge party with cake and dancing on the night in 1948 when Israel declared its Statehood, but her mother told me her memory of that night was being “terrified” because the declaration meant all of the surrounding countries would attack.
• it is the reason the Israeli calendar moves from Yom Ha’zicharon (a national day of mourning for fallen soldiers) directly into Yom Ha’atzmaut (a day celebrating the independence of the State).
• it is why we sing “mitzvah g’dolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid” – “being happy all the time is a great mitzvah”

Rabbi Zlotowitz says the scholarly theories do not explain how or why the Jews were able to transform the Seventh Day from a day of evil to a day of joy. “Why” the Jews would have done such a thing seems fairly self-evident — who wouldn’t rather live a day of joy than a day of fear??

But “How” … that “How” is the whole shebang!! Because how those ancient Jews transformed a community from living based on fear to living based on joy – I believe that “How” contains the spark that is the “key” to living a happy life … and that magic spark is The Thing that makes Judaism worth living today!!

So … what exactly is that “magic spark”? (because it’s not necessarily blind faith and it’s not necessarily engaging in mitzvot) … and how do we consistently bring that magic to life? (not just for my family, but for all the Jews who were never shown the beauty of what their tradition had to offer, and for all the Jews who forgot along the way) …

Those two questions … or, really, the finding of their answers … have become my passion, my quest, my mission in life. My search for them motivates me to study, to learn Hebrew, to create programs at synagogue, to read books by Jewish philosophers, to ask an annoying number of questions of any Rabbi that I can get to listen to me, and to try to synthesize the teachings of Rav Nachman, Viktor Frankl, Freud, Einstein, Heschel, Shlomo Carlebach, etc., etc. …

That spark of magic – the one that will remind us all to live from a place of joy, rather than fear – it’s out there, just waiting to be uncovered … and I’m going to find it …

Reach for the “impossible”!

A Hassidic Parable:
Once upon a time, a very hungry woman had a huge craving for one specific fruit, which rarely was found in the area where she lived. The woman looked up and, to her amazement, saw that very fruit growing high up on the side of the cliff, well beyond her reach. Because she was hungry, she started to imagine eating the fruit that she could see, but could not reach. However, instead of being satisfied, her imagining left her hungrier than she had been before and increased her craving for the unobtainable fruit.

“Better not to reach for things beyond your grasp.”

Adapted from the translation in YOUR WORD IS FIRE, GREEN & HOLTZ (1993), p. 103.

I’ve read the original text of this Parable about a dozen times in the last week, which feels absurd to me because the Parable is a simple story that purports to contain a straight-forward lesson. Nevertheless, something about this Parable has been nagging at me, causing me to keep coming back to it, and I’m starting to get some insight about what has been bothering me.

First, the purported Moral of the story, is … well … with all due respect to the Hassid who wrote this lovely little tale … the Moral is not really relevant to what happened in the Parable. Our protagonist did not reach for the fruit and, for example, fall off a cliff; she just stood there, imagining she was eating fruit that she could not reach. A more accurate statement of the moral of this story would be: “Don’t imagine having something you don’t have, because pretending will just make you miserable.”

My other problem with this story is that it easily could be read to condone … endorse … perhaps even encourage … apathy. Why? Because the Parable and original Moral, when combined, say: “No matter how much you want something, if it looks well beyond your reach, it’s better if you don’t try to reach it.”

I agree we shouldn’t stand frozen in the grip of our desire, pretending we have something we don’t have. But can we really know that something is beyond our reach before we have even tried to reach it??? And, how often have things appeared beyond reach until someone tried, and then suddenly, as if by a miracle, the thing actually was within reach??

Or what about the way that sometimes, as you move toward a goal, a shift occurs inside you or in the world around you, and then your goal, or the way you think about it, shifts … taking shape in a way that you never could have imagined when you began moving toward it????

And, honestly, where would we find the strength and drive to propel ourselves toward our dreams if not from the fire ignited inside us by imagining a world in which our dreams had already come true??!!

Perhaps the “problem” for the protagonist in the Parable is not that she wants something “impossible” to obtain … it’s that she stands around wasting time, instead of allowing her passion to motivate her to find friends, a ladder, or some other way to get closer to that fruit!!!

Even if she never reaches the fruit, the adventure of trying may well bring more sweetness to her life than the fruit ever could have anyway …