Thursday, February 14, 2008

T'zavveh: Putting your whole head into it.

Today, my friends, is just another day.

I sat down with the parashah last night. I'll admit that last week's portion (t'rumah) and this week's portion, T'zavveh (תצווה), are -- in my opinion -- more begrudging to read than all the so and so begot so and so sections. In those portions, you at least get all these beautiful explanations behind the beautiful Biblical names, right? But in t'rumah, it was the cubits for building the Tabernacle. It can get a little difficult to read since it's basically a blueprint. As for this week's portion, it was basically entirely about the kohenim (the priests) and their priestly garb. The portion details what stones and fabrics and colors and such that the garb should comprise, as well as the ordination rites for the priests. I'll admit, I read through it pretty quickly, but picked up at least on a couple of things that are worth mentioning. First, a simple quote from the Etz Chayim commentary: "Religion, like so much of life, oscillates between the poles of individual and collective activity" (p.507).

+ When G-d instructs that Aaron shall carry upon his garment the names of the sons of Israel as a "remembrance before the Lord at all times," the Torah commentary suggests that "Remembering is the source of redemption, while forgetting leads to exile." Of course, this thought comes from the Baal Shem Tov and is quite poignant. The thing is, Judaism is so very much about remembrance and the collective memory of the Jewish people. But by remembering, we learn and grow. On the same vein, we are all very familiar with Mordecai Kaplan's oft-mentioned declaration: "The past has a vote, not a veto." I think the Baal Shem Tov and Kaplan both had a firm grip on the importance of remembering and the weight memory has on the collective Jewish identity as it grows and changes.

+ The big thing that caught my eye, though, seems like sort of a stretch. While reading the portion and the commentary, I'm not sure exactly how the editors of Etz Chayim got from point A to point B in their comments on Exodus 29:45, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. The excerpt reads: "I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their G-d." The comments on this seemingly benign and oft-repeated phrase throughout the Torah, leads to some interesting comments. Firstly, this expresses that the people's holy acts alone did not engage G-d's presence among them, but rather it was by the grace of G-d that G-d chose to be present among the people. And here is where they lost me, but my d'var Torah comes from this next thought.

The Talmud asks, "If a priest's body is inside the Tent but his head remains outside, is he considered having entered the Tent and may he perform the service?" The answer (which seems obvious to me) is no (BT Zev. 26a). Now, this was likely a very literal question, for the sake of logistics, but it also incites an interesting question that is less literal. I'll word this question in my own way: If a Jew is in prayer but his head (thoughts) remain elsewhere, is he considered having entered the presence of G-d and may he be counted as present in prayer? The answer, is no.

As I read this and formulated the question, I thought of the Kosher Academic, who I had spoken to earlier yesterday over some delicious swarma from the Kosher cafe on campus. We were talking about going to shul and she was explaining that because her children are of a rambunctious age, she doesn't attend shul often because she worries about them running about and even if they're completely calm, she is constantly with her children on her mind. Interestingly after that discussion I was looking up the eruv locations here in Chicago and came across a little ditty about the importance of childrens' behavior in shul and how sometimes it is perhaps better to not bring them than to come and be disruptive to themselves and those in prayer. Those who keep up the Chicago Eruv web site write:
Despite the cherished place children enjoy in Jewish communal worship, there is no license to restructure our synagogues as indoor playgrounds for the young. On the contrary, the Mogen Avrohom in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (ibid) mentions: "And one must train them (the young) that they stand (in Shul) with awe and respect. And as for those that run back and forth in the synagogue in levity, it is better not to bring them."
So it coming back to the idea of one's thoughts and prayer and being at shul. I know I've written about it in the past, but this also comes back to the idea of the mechitzah, which the Kosher Academic and I also talked about a little. The thing is, the mechitzah makes complete sense to me. I mean, it isn't going to completely keep one's thoughts from running amok, but it's one way to attempt to quell the busy thoughts we have as we are trying to come into a place of prayer mentally. I know that when I was attending the Reform shul I found it nearly impossible to focus on anything because I was so distracted by the fact that everyone seemed completely unengaged and unhinged from the services. I felt as though I was alone in a crowd of completely indifferent people there for the social hour both before and after services. It frustrated me and clouded my thoughts. I'll also admit to scoping out the young, attractive Jewish gentleman at services. The article that sort of gave me new insight on the mechitzah is here.

Anyhow, the point is -- prayer requires focus, it requires having your whole head into it, to truly experience G-d's presence. The thing is, how often are we truly clear of mind and completely focused on the task at hand? My ex always joked that I have ADHD, simply because my focus is never on one thing for more than a few seconds. When we go out to eat, I have to face a wall, or else I'm constantly looking around, making observational comments, my eyes flicker from thing to thing. This came in handy in my former job, because so much was going on at once. I find it more difficult now, because I don't have as much to do and when I start something, I start something else, and forget what I was doing until minutes, sometimes hours later. It's frustrating, and even plays into my myriad sleep problems (the mind that will neither shut off nor focus). So when it comes to prayer, I truly have to strive for a clear mind as much as possible. It doesn't come as easily as it once did, it seems, but I know that being fully engaged is of the utmost importance -- so we forge forth, clear our minds, and hope for the best.

So friends, I leave you with that. May you have a beautiful Shabbat tomorrow, or a wonderful weekend, or a restful Thursday and rest of the weekend. In whatever you do, be well.

Also: Check out the Idan Raichel Project! Seriously ... some beautiful/amazing music there.