Monday, October 27, 2008

Kaddish, Hollywood, and the Spanish Inquisition

The poor Yarmulke was clearly out of its element on the young man’s long curly hair. Its precarious perch, and the several times that it nearly fell off, were as clear an indication of this fellows comfort in the Orthodox shul as were his several prominent piercings. I sat behind him, wondering what brought this sandal-clad Jew with only one of his shirt buttons closed into our shul. When he rose to say Kaddish, however, the mystery was solved. I spoke to him after services to welcome him, and discovered that his mother had died as a young woman, and that he made an appearance every year to honor her memory in the way that meant the most to him.


After a parent dies, a son is obligated to say Kaddish for one year. Kaddish is prayer declaring the greatness of God, and praying that the world recognize it. There are so many who have been brought back to Torah observance through Kaddish – people whose lives have taken paths not boasting a Shul, have had to make their  respective ways to one after feeling loss.


It is amazing what trial and loss can awaken in man. Contented and secure, so many of us often do not realize the necessity to reach out to G-d, and connect with Him in any meaningful way. But those very same people who find happiness outside the shul somehow cannot find a method of dealing with loss there. The mysteries of life are awakened when one is having a hard time. Those who are happy generally continue doing what makes them happy, while those beset with misery look for change. They explore, and seek change.


It is a tragedy of the Jewish experience throughout history that we have not managed well in prosperity. We managed to remain faithful to our Divine mission through pogrom and blood libel, but when it came to prosperity, we have somehow fallen short. Rabbi Yosef Yaavetz, one of the great Torah giants who witnessed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain observed in his work Or Hachaim (p. 8) that those who retained their rock-like faith in the face of the persecution of the Inquisition, willing to lose everything including their lives for the noble mission of the Jewish people, were the simple, uncultured, unlearned Jews, who did not occupy places in society. Those who had begun assimilating, even while following the Torah, were the first to abandon the Torah when things got tough, for they were already to far gone. It was not just the Inquisition that was pulling them to abandon their role in G-d’s plan – now their positions, estates, and lifestyles beckoned to them. Those who didn’t have it that good, had nothing pulling them from God other than murderous devils. And they retained their faith.


It is such a shame that we often maintain our relationship with G-d and truth out of lack. It is out of pain, and a sense of emptiness that we seek G-d initially. Must we always lack? Once we are fulfilled – can we then engage in the relationship with the same gusto? The Hollywood model of relationship – where with few exceptions, no relationship lasts beyond a year is a good example of this dynamic. People who are empty and looking for someone to win over, thus giving them the accomplishment of “having dated” so and so, will quickly tire of the actual relationship – for a lot of what they were looking for, and finding fulfillment in was the challenge of the dating game. They don’t know what to do with one another once they are committed. If neither one is playing hard to get, then they begin looking elsewhere.  While we must beware the dangers of oversimplifying the nature of relationships, we still must know, that the real relationship only begins truly when it is no longer simply about getting the relationship, but about building it.


King David called to God often. In good times, “As I raise the Cup of Salvation, I call to G-d” (Psalms 116:13), and in hard times, “I have found trouble and pain. So I call to G-d.” (ibid 116:3-4) It has been said by great Rabbis that we must not only sing to G-d in good times, but also in the harder ones as David did. But this young man coming to say Kaddish in his time of pain taught me that it can be much harder to call to G-d in good times than in bad. To teach ourselves to recognize that it is G-d who is running the show when we are successful and happy, and to pray with the same fire then, is the beginning of relating to G-d from within our relationship with him. Then, should the time come, G-d forbid, that one will have to recite the Kaddish, he will not be calling to G-d to search for Him, but rather to pick up the conversation where they left off during the good times. After all, it is all the same conversation.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Mystics, Rationalists, and Fringes on Clothes

(the following is based upon chapter 4 of the sefer “Hamitzvos HaSehkulos” of the saintly Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe z”l)

Mystics dress in white gowns and burn incense. We rationalists wear business suits, and designer shirts and ties. But why is it that some of us can be so confused by, and indifferent to, talk about demons, angels, and heaven?

There are seven commandments that are considered by our sages to be as important as the entirety of the Torah. One of them is “tzitzis.” Tzitzis are the fringes that a male Jew is obligated to affix to his four cornered garment, should he choose to wear one. Although most clothing is no longer made with four corners, Torah observant Jews wear special undershirts of four corners colloquially called “tzitzis,” so as not to miss the grand opportunity to perform this mitzvah.

But what is behind this mitzvah? Why is it worthy of being dubbed as valuable as the entire Torah?

Tosafos (Menachos 43b) tells us that these strings are similar to a brand that a slave wears informing the world that he is enslaved to his master alone. The Midrash (Numbers Rab. 17:6) however paints a very different sounding picture of this mitzvah. “A parable – A man has fallen overboard at sea, and is in grave danger! The captain extends him a line and tells him, grab a hold, don’t let go, for letting go of this line is forfeiting your very life. “Grab onto my commandments,” says G-d; “letting go of them is forfeiting your very life.”

A glorious picture! Our tzitzis are our very lives, connecting us to G-d, our captain who is waiting for us to join him on the deck, and be saved from the turbulence of life’s raging tempests. He beseeches mankind to simply embrace Torah values and he will then pull his end of the cord. Man wearing his tzitzis is showing that he is just a tug away from an audience with the divine presence. How very different from the Tosafos’ image of the torah adherent as a branded slave is this Midrash!

Man is a composite of spirit and earth. He is caught in a tug of war between his earthly impulses and his spiritual aspirations. There are two parts to his job on this earth. He must firstly learn not to be beholden to the calls of his animalistic physical side, and he must also learn to attach to the spiritual. Man must brand himself and show that he is not enslaved to the physical but rather answers to a much higher calling. He must then also begin to grasp at and hold onto the line extended to him from the Master of the universe who is beckoning to him, and inviting him to take his rightful place on the deck of the ship.

There are two genres in classic Jewish scholarship in explaining the meaning of mitzvot. Sefer Hachinuch explains the more basic and rational reasons for the commandments. This explains the branding of the person, how the mitzvot ensure that he simply not drown in the ocean of the physical world. Others, such as Ridvaz, (in his Metzudas Dovid) explain the more mystical significances of the commandments. This provides explanations as to how the mitzvot then attach man to his Maker and bring him up onto the deck of the ship.

Rationalism and mysticism are both accurate and true. The rationalist explains how the mitzvot affect the physical world, and why they elevate a man above it. The mystic explains how it is that the mitzvot bring one into a spiritual world, and teach us “spiritual physics,” explaining how those mitzvot bring us close to G-d. Every Jew is both a mystic and a rationalist. He lives an existence of the tangible intermingled with the spirit. Those who wear tzitzis have access, on their very person to a message that encompasses the entire mission of man in this world. There is mysticism in the rational, and rationalism in the mystical. This is the secret of tzitzis.