From Beneath Our Roots

I had an interesting “vision” the other day as I was reading a text written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.   While discussing what it means to live as a Jew, Heschel wrote: 

“Our blossoms may be crushed, but we are upheld by the faith that comes from beneath our roots.”

The Earth Is The Lord’s, p. 109.

Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, as clear as if being held before me, were tzitzit and they looked astonishingly like . . . ROOTS!!   It was as if I never before had truly “seen” tzitzit — the knotted portion is flexible, yet firm, like a stem, and those fringes dangling from the bottom, if fanned out a bit, actually look like roots!!

My next thought was two verses in Jeremiah 17, which were part of my bat mitzvah haftorah:

7  Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord.
8  For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit.

Jeremiah and Rabbi Heschel are discussing the same concept, which is that a person who embraces Judaism and lives by its values can come to understand that this year’s blossoms are just that — only this year’s blossoms.  New blossoms will arrive again next year and, in the meantime, although we can’t produce fruit this year, we can enjoy the sunshine, strengthen our roots, trunk, and branches, and be grateful for what we do have.  We need not panic when an unexpected setback arrives; we simply need to hold onto our faith that better days are ahead of us and enjoy the little blessings as they arrive.

And, what might this have to do with strings attached to the four corners of a garment and tied in such a way that they have 613 knots representing 613 commandments???

Ahad Ha’am, a Cultural (i.e. secular & atheist) Zionist who lived from 1856-1927, is quoted as having said: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”  And, it seems to me, the truth expressed by Ha’am’s statement is equally true for some of the 612 remaining commandments.

While many modern Jews have rejected the notion that G-d “gave” those commands or that G-d will “reward” or “punish” us based on how frequently we follow those commandments, maybe the origin and external consequences aren’t what matters.  Perhaps “something else” about the doing of the commandments helps us in some intangible way . . . just as Ha’am noted about Shabbat.

I have found that simply by acknowledging that many of the acts I already engage in are commandments – by loving G-d, praying, affirming there is only one G-d, celebrating holidays, caring for others, etc – so that I approach them with the proper intention, I have been able to:

(1) connect myself to 3000 years of tradition — which can remind me that today (even if it is a truly horrible day) is just a brief tick in the eternal clock;
(2) say a number of blessings each day acknowledging the “simple moments” in life — which reminds me that I am surrounded by beauty and reasons to be grateful;
(3) celebrate the cycle of the day, week, month, and year — which shows me that time keeps moving, so any new setback will pass; and
(4) attach myself to a community — which can provide emotional support during difficult times.

In these ways, performing a few commandments can help a Jew develop an unshakable belief that somehow, sometime, everything will be just fine.  And tzitzit, through the commandments they represent, are a conduit for developing that belief because they connect us to the timeless, mysterious, awesome force that pervades all of existence.  Tzitzit are the ROOTS that allow us to soak up all the nutrients in the fertile soil that is Judaism.

The Wing of an Angel

My family has been coming to Sanibel Island, which is in the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Florida, for a number of years.  Some people assert Sanibel has the best beaches in the world for finding amazing shells.  Some years I agree with that assertion, and other years I don’t.  The kind, quality, and quantity of shells we find varies greatly, depending on the time of year, the weather patterns, luck, and our ability to “be like Moses” and stare at the sand and water longer than anyone else would think was appropriate.

Last night, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the beach — it was low tide, and I was finding really cool shells!  But, then, when I found the shell pictured below, I knew I was finished for the evening . . . it’s a shell that I’d never before found intact.  It’s called an “Angel Wing,” and when you see it, you’ll know why!

That a little sea creature could create something this intricate, delicate, and beautiful is nothing short of miraculous, and finding amazing shells on the beach never fails to fill me with a sense of wonder and awe.




Baruch Hashem!

a post for Andy

        Not so long ago, I started to be concerned that I was becoming a little “too weird” with my affinity for ascribing deep meaning to coincidences that I notice, but that others might see as trivial.  But then two weeks ago, when I unexpectedly found myself in an out-of-the-way bookstore, I ran across a book that I’d never heard of before:  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Earth is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe.”  After reading about half of the book, I’ve come to understand that I’m not so much “weird” as living in the wrong generation!!
         Once upon a time, in Eastern Europe, there was a place where people like me were the rule, not the exception:
They were sure that everything hinted at something transcendent, that what was apparent to the mind is but a thin surface of the undisclosed, and they often preferred to gain a foothold on the brink of the deep even at the price of leaving the solid ground of the superficial. . . . Nothing could be taken literally, neither Scripture nor nature. . . .  A Biblical word, a custom or a saying, was thought to be crammed with a multiplicity of meaning.  The plain was too shallow to be true.  Only the mystery was plausible . . . .
Heschel, The Earth is the Lord’s, pp. 56-7.
        I think it must have been amazingly wonderful to be surrounded by a community of people looking for (and finding!!!) invisible connection, interesting coincidences, and secret meaning that was hidden all around, including in Hebrew words.   But I also recognize that I don’t so much want to have lived in a place and time where people killed Jews in State-sponsored massacres!  So I can’t be sorry that I live in the here and now.
         Instead, I’ll just keep looking for other souls like Andy (my morning prayer and study partner) and our Rabbi, who paired Andy and me as study partners nearly a decade ago.  We can share moments of connection and hidden meaning with one another, and we can bring apparent contradictions to one another, whether from a text one of us is studying or from real life, to talk about until we find a way to see consistency underlying the apparent contradiction.   And then, G-d willing, all of us from this generation can share a study table with some of those Jews from Eastern Europe in “the giant library in the sky” . . .
       That IS what everyone else thinks Heaven will be, right???   A huge library that contains every book ever written, and we will have the ability to read and understand every language in which the books were written, and there will be comfortable chairs at tables for eight, where we can sit for “days,” discussing how every book ever written, in every language, on every continent, and from every generation, somehow fits together, because each and every one of us, even if some of us take longer than others to arrive, we are all headed toward the same place . . .
. . Unity . . . with each other and in The One . . .
                 Baruch Hashem!

“he” and “she”

          I recently noticed something new about the spelling of two Hebrew words, and I thought I would share it to see if anyone else finds it interesting …
          G-d’s unspeakable four-letter Hebrew name is spelled yud-hey-vav-hey, and some people believe that name, which is made of “vowel” letters, sounds like wind or like breathing.
          The Hebrew word for the third-person pronoun “he” is spelled hey-vav-aleph (pronounced “hu”), and the Hebrew word for the third-person pronoun “she” is spelled hey-yud-aleph (pronounced “hee”).  The first two letters of each of those words is half of the letters from G-d’s name and, just like G-d’s name, those letters make “breath sounds.”  And the Aleph that’s added to the end of each word is a “silent” letter, which typically also represents a vowel and which Midrash says is the silent “almost a sound” that contained everything G-d said at Mt. Sinai.  Thus, in Hebrew, the words “hu” and “hee” can remind us that the man or woman of whom we are about to speak is (1) a living, breathing image of G-d, who (2) holds intuitive knowledge of everything G-d said.
          Why do I find this interesting?  Because I don’t believe it is just a coincidence that   can remind us that a person is an image of G-d with infinite wisdom.
          “He” and “she” are terms we use to speak about a man or woman, as opposed to speaking to a man or woman.  Frequently, when we speak about someone, that person is not present for the conversation.  And my life experiences have demonstrated to me that we humans tend to be more careful how we speak about someone who is present to hear what we say.  Perhaps that is simply because we know the person is there to refute our statements, but perhaps it is because, when someone is present, we are able to look at that person to see and remember — before we speak — that the person is an image of G-d and is wise in ways that we are not.
           Imagine how different our world might be if the terms for “he” and “she” in every language provided a reminder that a person who is not present, and about whom we are preparing to speak, is an image of G-d who is full of wisdom . . ..  How often might we have more patience, compassion, and respect when we talked about those who were not present to defend themselves?
            I wonder …
Baruch Hashem!