Posted by Rabbi Mordecai Finley
(Thanksgiving and Chanukah, part two)
Shabbat MiKetz, 2013
In last column, I wrote about my problem with the notion of giving thanks for the bounty. This does not mean that I don’t experience deep gratitude every day, both as a feeling and as a contemplative practice. I do.
I give thanks daily for, among other things, family, friends, our synagogue members and lay leaders, our devoted staff, certain philanthropists (there is some overlap among these categories). I also am grateful for living at a time when the State of Israel exists, and am grateful for being a citizen of the United States. I am grateful consciously to all those in history who have created and sustained those two miracles. I am blessed and grateful that I am Jew. Having survived a heart attack in 2006, I am daily grateful just to be alive.
I do feel, rightly or wrongly, a touch of the hand of the divine in all of those listed above in some general way, but it is hard for me pin down the specific moment when I would say “that was God’s hand.” There are so many paths I could have taken in life, by choice and otherwise, that may or may not have brought me to this moment. Sometimes when I describe the odd twists of circumstance that have led me to this place to a couple who met at Ohr HaTorah, they have a concerned look on their faces. “If you guys had not founded Ohr HaTorah, then we would have never met and our kids wouldn’t be alive” they say with alarm. The slippery hand of fate is terrifying to behold. Does the hand of God clutch us from the path or the destiny that is not ours, and bring us to our rightful journey? It feels that way.
When I raise the lens from my life, however, and think of what I know, my theory falters. All those millions who were murdered by tyrants or murdered by thugs, innocents dying in war, or ravaged by disease, people living desperate and hopeless lives, mental illness . . . the list is painful to consider.
If God led me to the miracles that are my life, then were they led by the same God to their bitter circumstances? If God puts bounty on my table, does God withhold bounty from others? Some say to me: there is divine plan in which this all works out. Personally, I doubt it. “Are you smarter that God?” I am asked. It is a silly question, but in response I say, “No, but I am smart enough to recognize a pattern. I don’t see one here.” When someone contemplates the horrible fate of another and says “It’s God will” I have to breathe and exhale very slowly.
My deep gratitude does not match up with my theory that the hand of the divine cannot reach into this realm, that in this realm, we are stranded.
It is for this reason that I differentiate strongly between theology and spirituality. I was very good at theology when I was in seminary, and was even told that I might be one day an important Reform theologian. My life turned me away from study of theology to the study of spirituality, to Mussar, to Chasidut, to human experience and transformation. I quip, “I only have enough of a theology to fuel my spiritual psychology.” (Circumstances don’t allow me to use this quip often, but I always have it ready).
Chanukah: As I wrote before, I am grateful for the warrior spirits of those who fought the war against the Syrian Hellenists. I am also grateful for the generations of pious jurists and mystics, preachers and poets who took advantage of what the Maccabees saved from annihilation and turned it into a magnificent treasure house. Students of Torah are brought to tears by the sublime found there.
When I look at the Chanukah lights, I don’t think about the fable of the miracle of the oil, which misdirects us from considering that a candle stands for the human soul. I am thankful for the spirits and souls of all of those, like the Maccabees, who fought when fighting was needed.
When I look at the Thanksgiving table, I look at the faces of the people, who are, and stand for, the deepest miracles of my life. I feel the generous hand of the Divine and the spiritual abundance in my life.
11.28.13 at 3:55 pm | Further musings on Chanukah (Hanukah) and. . .
11.27.13 at 10:57 am | The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and Chanukah. . .
9.18.13 at 5:54 pm | Happiness is commandment during Sukkot, but can. . .
9.16.13 at 6:41 pm | I had a new insight about atheism this week.. . .
9.16.13 at 4:16 pm |
11.27.13 at 10:57 am | The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and Chanukah. . . (63)
11.28.13 at 3:55 pm | Further musings on Chanukah (Hanukah) and. . . (49)
9.16.13 at 6:41 pm | I had a new insight about atheism this week.. . . (3)
November 27, 2013 | 10:57 am
Posted by Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Thanksgiving and Chanukah part 1
We never said grace before a meal or anything like it my home growing up. When I might eat a meal at friend’s home, I found grace odd. It was not that I did not believe in God; I had not thought about God enough to have a strong opinion on the matter. I just knew that God did not put the food on the table. I remember my dad, who was a socialist-atheist before he became a Democrat and then a Jew, saying something like “God did not put food on the table; a working man did.” He meant farm workers. As I got older and read and thought more, I added agricultural corporations, big and small, packing companies and workers, truck manufacturers, trucking companies, truck drivers, grocery stores and grocery workers, stockers, cashiers and baggers, etc., etc., and my mom. Still no God.
Had the Motzi blessing not been in Hebrew, I might have objected to saying it. I have real problems with the idea of God’s providence, because if God chooses to provide, then God also chooses not to provide. I find the latter idea objectionable, because a God who chooses not to provide is not a God worthy of serious consideration.
The Motzi on its face is not hard to poke fun at. Quoting Psalm 104:14, we bless God for “bringing bread from the earth” “hamotzi lechem min haaretz”. Actual loaves of bread? The ancient rabbis saw the problem as well. In the great Midrash on Genesis (chapter 15:7), the rabbis are arguing about which tree it was that Adam and Even ate from. One says “a wheat tree.” His companions are perplexed. The rabbi explains: back in Eden, loaves of bread grew on trees that were as big as the Cedars of Lebanon (which is why God said to Adam that he would have to get his bread by the sweat of his brow; before he just picked it from trees).
So when it comes to being thankful for the bounty, etc., I would concede that God creates nature, but then a complex symbiosis of human industry and efficiency comes into play. Am I thankful for the farm workers and the array of small businesses and corporations and their employees, motivated by a free market system to get the most food for the lowest price onto our tables, and for the government agencies that try to regulate all of this? Actually, more impressed (knowing the human proclivity for waste, corruption and venality) that things work out so well, at least in these parts, than thankful. Yes, I am thankful, but not piously so.
Which brings me to Chanukah. I do feel piously thankful around the military. Before the fall of 1973, the looming event of November was the memory of assasination of President Kennedy in 1963. Three months in Marine Corps boot camp from August to November of 1973 put the birthday of the Marine Corps (10 November 1775) and Battle of Tarawa into my consciousness (sixty years ago last week – November 20-23, 1943). We learned Marine Corps history, and the Battle of Tarawa frightened me. The Second Marine Division went up against an impregnable island fortress, whose Japanese commander said it would take a million men a hundred years to conquer. A thousand Marines died in three days taking Tarawa. They swam, crawled, walked and charged into a firestorm of searing metal. It was made pretty clear to me that if I were ordered that I would be expected to follow that same path.
I never was ordered to follow that path but I know many, both here and in Israel, who were or will be ordered. I think I know, vicariously, what the decision of the Maccabees to fight felt like. In 167 BCE, a war between Judean farm workers, inter alia, and a professional Syrian Hellenist army seemed unthinkable, and if one did think about, it seemed futile.
For some proud and few Jewish farmers, however, dying in battle to preserve their heritage, even in a losing battle, seemed preferable to whatever the next best thing was. They walked into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And there were enough of them who believed in the mission so deeply that three years later, I think perhaps to their amazement, the Syrian Hellenist army withdrew.
I recommend that people not recount the fable of the oil lasting eight days. It distracts us from the real miracle, a miracle of heart, spirit and vision, the willingness to suffer, and the belief in the righteous of their cause. This should be our focus on Chanukah.
I have met descendants of the Maccabees first hand -- Israeli young men, who volunteer for infantry and special units and who are guaranteed that when the rockets flare, that they will be the hammer and the metal on the shield against a ruthless enemy who would kill every last one of us if they get the chance.
Around them, and when I think of them, I feel piously thankful.
September 18, 2013 | 5:54 pm
Posted by Rabbi Mordecai Finley
How Can Emotions Be Commanded?
‘How can emotions be commanded?’, I am asked, when I go over the three main commandments regarding Sukkot: to live in rickety hut with an unfinished roof (Sukkah), wave a bunch of foliage around, and be only happy. I am certainly asked to explain the rickety hut and the waving of foliage, but the commandment to be happy must be justified. The "how" in the question is usually the "how" of complaint, not the "how" of curiosity.
First of all, emotions are commanded all the time. We are asked to move on when we are grieving, to calm down when we are excited, to get over it when we are upset. We tell our children to stop pouting. We tell them to be grateful.
In the commandment to be “happy” (meaning here inner wellbeing), it is not just the emotion of happiness that is being commanded, but more essentially the feeling of happiness. In my work, the distinction between feelings and emotions is crucial. I see emotion occurring rather immediately. Emotions take us over before we are even aware of it. They often come and go quickly. Emotions usually bridge our inner lives to the outside world, to other people.
I see feelings as running more deeply. I can recall times when my deeper feelings were troubled, worried or grieving. I would have moments emotional happiness when I was with other people, or doing something enjoyable, but once I was alone with my feelings again, the pain came back. Feelings are often kept inside. When they are negative, they can produce a range of destructive emotions and behaviors.
This where addictions come in. Addicts want to feel better. External substances help the body lie to the soul that we have found a solution. It is not too different with emotion addicts; profound physiological changes occur when we are, for example, angry, which both produces a high, but also, like addictive substances, damages our health (the heart, the immune system, the arterial system, the hippocampus -- the list is rather extensive).
Negative feelings damage us. Positive feelings, well, make us feel better, and can improve our health, psychological, spiritual, and physical. We would typically not question a physician who told us to quit smoking, go on a diet, exercise more, drink less alcohol, not to take methamphetamine and so forth. But the directive to be happy is questioned.
Cultivation of feelings of happiness is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. The real question to ask at this time is not the complaint: "how (dare) the Bible tell me how to feel?", but rather: "how exactly do I fulfill this commandment?". Many wise books have been written on precisely this topic and those who follow the advice of the wiser of these books are likely to become happier (and if the book sells well, the author, too, may experience an uptick in the happiness quotient).
If you add up all the advice offered in these tomes, under the bottom line you will get an answer, in which the following advice is central: learn to manage consciousness toward inner wellbeing (a synonym for the feelings of happiness). Getting negative people out of your life or extricating yourself from negative situations are included under the bottom line, as well, but quickly getting negative people out of your life or getting out of negative situations are, however, not that easy for some of us. So we are left with managing consciousness as our main course of action.
Managing consciousness takes training. Managing consciousness can feel like an inner battle. If you have ever wrestled with procrastination or depression, you know that it often feels that we are way out of our weight class. The feelings behind those patterns are heavy and they dominate us. With procrastination and depression, time seems to slow down. If we learn how to engage the enemy, we typically have the time to do so. (Here I am not referring to clinical depression, but rather the sort that can be treated with a cognitive-behavioral approach). With anger, on the other hand, time speeds up. We have to be pretty well trained to intervene.
Training consciousness to deal with anger, one of the strongest forces that attacks our ability to cultivate inner wellbeing (happiness), is to fight a crafty, quick and strong inner foe.
Training consciousness is not as difficult as it sounds. What is difficult is showing up for the training. Once you show up, things get better rather quickly.
The essential questions are how to get yourself to show up, and how to start the training.
During the holiday of Sukkot, I will give an abridged training (teaching) on how to manage consciousness on this blog. Stay tuned and Chag Same'ach!
September 16, 2013 | 6:41 pm
Posted by Rabbi Mordecai Finley
I had a new insight about atheism this week.
Though my ongoing studies of Chasidism, I am encountering again a refutation of the supposed opposition of philosophy and mysticism. Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher, who is understood rather firmly as being shaped by Plato and Aristotle, described the further reaches of human consciousness. At the highest levels of consciousness, language, words, and images run out. We apprehend the Divine in a completely trans-rational way. This is a rare experience among us; only a few, he would hold, have the natural capacity and the serious will it takes to transcend the rational mind and experience Nothing, no-thing. To put this is in the odd jargon of philosophy, the “thing-ness” of the Divine becomes absent.
We are attached to thoughts when we think about sublime things; love, justice, truth, beauty, holiness, and so forth. To pierce into the essence of the Divine, however, we have to experience something where the will to know simply becomes a silent will. One knows No-thing. This idea of that at further reaches of human consciousness we experience “Ayin”, No-thing, is a teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, who is teaching from long series of texts and teachers in the Kabbalah.
When an atheist says to me that there is nothing out there, no source or standard of love, justice, truth or beauty, that there is nothing outside of us that infuses life with meaning, I find myself in odd agreement. “You are right”, I think. “There is No-thing” Ayin, in Hebrew. Atheists perceive the No-thing, and of course give it no name, because it is Nameless. Perhaps some atheists experience what the greatest philosophers and mystics experienced. Atheists know, as do, I think, all serious spiritual seekers, that religion can be filled with so much noise, superficiality, moral nonsense, misguided thinking, and distractions from truth that many are rarely led to truth.
Which bring me to Rosh HaShanah. If the higher reach of religion, spirituality and mysticism is the experience of the pure will of No-thing (as Maimonides and the Kabbalah would teach), why do have so many words, concepts and names of God? To put it simply, why do we have religion, Torah, Judaism or any other spiritual path? Why do we have the High Holy Days?
I think because consciousness is like a ladder. On rare days I have the ecstatic experience of the No-thing. More often, I have the abysmal feeling of the empty-thing. “I read the news today; oh boy”; ‘four thousands new graves in Syria . . .” I think of the lonely, the desperate and the lost. My heart breaks for them, for us.
And in that breakage, according to an odd calculus that I don’t quite understand, a light comes through. And in the lyric beauty of our poetry, our liturgy, our holy stories, the deep, veiled layers of our holy ideas, I know that our spiritual path, our religion, is not to be literalized, petrified, or embalmed. It is to serve as a ladder though the great cloud of unknowing.
Immersed in our path, I am elevated. Perhaps not to the No-thing, but definitely to the Some-thing.