Thursday, January 12, 2006

This is something that I wrote about two and a half years ago, soon after coming back from my Birthright trip to Israel. It was the beginning of the culmination of the events that eventually led me to begin what is commonly referred to as an observant lifestyle, or religious, or traditional, or orthodox, or whatever; I just prefer the term "Jewish" because that term rung truer than the rest.

Captain’s Log -

June 15, 2003:

I just finished reading a book called “Abraham.” Can you guess what the book is about? If you said “Abraham,” then you’re right. But what does that mean? What does something mean to be about Abraham? The book is about Abraham’s role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and what the significance of that is. But I’m not gonna write about the book in here. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Judaism lately. Actually, not the religion of Judaism, but how it fits into my life. It’s fair to say that I’m secular, but I don’t like the tone of that word, it’s almost atheistic. I value Judaism, the religion, and I bring it into my life openly, but perhaps I have become a little closed to some of it, which I actually did by my own merit. I used to say that I don’t agree with everything in Judaism, which is a practice, a religion, a set system of beliefs. When I was younger and I heard people say that I thought it was stupid because I thought that they were just rebelling and they didn’t know why, now I see that there is more to it than that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they WEREN’T rebels without causes. After weighing some things and going through some trials and errors, I have decided that I would like to bring a little more of Judaism into my life, that is, a little more of the practices of Judaism. Some things in Judaism I find highly satisfying and humbling and cleansing, such as not working or driving on Shabbat, not eating certain foods, Yom Kippur… But some things turn me off, and possibly because they aren’t part of Judaism. So what is Judaism? Judaism is the movement, and in some places in history, an institution, that sprung forth from Abraham’s “revelation” from God that there is only one and spiritual enlightenment is rooted in attempting to reach that God and a better understanding of the world. Now that makes sense, what doesn’t make sense, or much sense, are some of the practices and actions that have found their way into that upward climb and have been formalized within the thought-pattern of that climb as part of the duty of a human (in this case, a Jew). I don’t know which ones came later or first or even when, but I know what sounds artificial to me and what sounds right. Let’s face it, some things got into the religion in times when Jews were trying to be different from others, or were forced into it (ghettos and that sort of thing) and therefore, they aren’t part of the original “covenant.” Like halacha, for example. I think that it’s foolish to what extent halacha goes. I know that it would be impossible to have Judaism without it since some text is very vague, but I see Jews who put their energy into keeping halacha but not into thinking right, which I see as much more important. If you wanna do both, then good for you, but if you think that you’re being a good Jew because you keep all halacha, you’re a moron! I used to say that there is no such thing as a bad Jew. I would say that to people who felt that by not doing things they were bad Jews. There is such thing as a bad Jew, that is it! Someone who thinks Judaism is just about doing what is right but not thinking or feeling what is right, THAT is a bad Jew! That is a Jew that is out of touch with the world around him or her, and consequently, that is a bad human as well. I don’t reject certain practices because I immensely respect Judaism for its emphasis on doing and not just thinking or feeling. You need to move yourself through the actions, become what you are thinking, become what you are feeling, that way it is made REAL. I have such a high reverence for that that I LOVE my religion. Yes, I love it, I love that action, that thought, that we are connected to the world and a part of it and therefore we cannot truly be IN it if we do not MOVE like it, MOVE within it. It is very humbling, and that’s why physical things are very important in Judaism, such as the Wall. That is one reason why I broke out crying there, amongst others. That God is in physical things, not physically in them, maybe they are in Him. Either way, the Wall transcends verbal explanations of why it’s so important to me and to Jews. When everything else physical in Judaism can become dogmatic and pointless when stripped of thought and feeling, the Wall can NEVER do that! The Wall CREATES life, it tells me what I AM, not what others are NOT. It shows me where I’m FROM and grounds me THERE. But it also shows me that because of all these things, I am able to be selfish for it, but it tells what I AM, and I AM not selfish (I want not to be), and that is why the Wall hurts so much, something that I love so much. It puts me closer to God, and maybe that’s what hurts. Proximity is everything. When you are from God, far from His warmth, everything else is relative. Everything gives off some kind of heat, some real, some perceived. But when you are from enough away from the source of the warmth, it doesn’t matter if you move back ten feet or if you move forward twenty, there is a certain distance that you can be from God where small movements are irrelevant. But when you move significantly closer to God, the warmth becomes significantly more comforting. And there is a certain distance from God (never actually reaching Him until death) in which the warmth is so comforting and so pleasing, that not being able to be in closer proximity to God hurts, it actually hurts! Because of proximity. If this is the warmth that I feel being only here, and it is SO immense, then the actual love and warmth that God has to offer is OVERWHELMING! And it hurts because you want to be in that place with God, but you know that you are far and you feel yourself reaching out to Him and Him reaching out to you, but HE can’t touch you because you will die. And you are ultimately thankful for HIS being just so you can feel the IMMENSE warmth that He has to offer. And it is because you know that there is a perfect place next to God waiting, it hurts you that you are not there, that you are here, on Earth, only allowed some of God and in small increments, step-by-step. It hurts that you are in a world of chaos, you live for that warmth, you LIVE for it. You allow yourself to live and help others to live, you inject life into the world, and this is the only way to act out what you felt when you were in such close proximity to God. God accompanies the carrying out of His duty with amazing satisfaction so that you will LOVE IT, and you will do it more. You should do it anyway, but we are a physical creation and it’s the added bonus that God gives us when we do something that He would like us to do. He gives us warmth.

June 17th, 2003

I am beginning something new in my life. I am going to start keeping Shabbat. Maybe observing Shabbat is a better term, but it still doesn’t hit the nail on the head. Let me think of a better way to explain it, a way that will actually do a good job in expressing the intention of Shabbat. The week has seven days starting with Sunday and going all the way through Shabbat. Sunday is yom rishon (the first day) and Saturday is yom Shabbat, a derivative of the word sheva, which means seven. The days of the week are yom rishon, yom sheni, yom shlishi, yom revii yom chamishi, yom shishi, and yom Shabbat. The first six days literally mean “the first day,” “the second day,” and so on. But the last day is called “yom Shabbat,” which doesn’t mean “the seventh day” literally. “Yom shivi” means “the seventh day,” and the reason that it’s name is different than the other days is because it stands apart from the rest, it is different. It’s difference is expressed in its name, which is deliberately different so that its different “status” may be recognized upon simple usage of the word. One who understands that in Hebrew that “Shabbat” doesn’t fall into the counting pattern from one to seven, they will automatically see something different about the word. And that is the intent. You can automatically see that the week being seven days long and the last day being the emphasized one, standing apart from the rest, is fashioned after the “Creation” story in Genesis, which states that God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and hallowed it out as a day of rest for all humankind as a remembrance that He rested on that day. But to seek to live your life in this pattern, a seven-day week does not mean that you place a literal belief in the story of the seven-day Creation. You do not need to believe that it is literal in order to view Sunday as the first day of the week, work hard for six days, then allow yourself the seventh day as a day of rest. Furthermore, we humans live in “time,” we operate with the knowledge of the concept of time, which provides a skeleton for an otherwise free-flowing world in which we would be lost. Every “day” the sun goes up and it comes back down, that is a day, and it is a healthy structure. If the day is a healthy structure, then so is a week (and so on). It provides then that it is not unhealthy at all to view the week as a seven-day structure, if that is what you prefer. Keep in mind too that the WHOLE WORLD has accepted the idea of the week, time broken into a seven-day period, whether or not they have any religious affiliation; it is simply convenient. To add to that, the human psyche works well with the idea of beginning and end; everything starts and everything ends, the sun goes up and the sun comes down. It is the very breaking of time into sections, the very breaking of existence into events, that assigns a meaning to our lives. Who knew that such an arbitrary “man-made” structure could be so healthy? But it is hardly man-made, we just fill in the gaps. Nevertheless, the concept of a seven-day week in which one works for the first six days and rests on the seventh is a healthy way to combine sectioning off time and the concept of “beginning” and “end.” Perhaps it is with a Jewish bias that I am saying this, but that is exactly the point, I am Jewish and if I want to live my life with this type of week, opposed to the “Christian” week, then I can. Shabbat is a day which is supposed to be opened-up for relaxation, both physical and mental. It is a time in which you can leave all work behind and use to be with your family or your friends or yourself. It is a time in which you can stay at home. The Torah says that nothing should do work on that day, that all your animals should be given rest from the drudges of the hard week. In modern Judaism, according to halacha, this is interpreted to include machines and cars, they should not be worked. If you look at them as animals that need to be rested, that is foolish. But if you look at the concept behind it as operating a vehicle forcing you to work, or using the vehicle that you use during your work-week, then it makes more sense. Then the car actually becomes the animal, using your oxen to plow your fields or your camels to carry your water, it rests and hence so can you. Furthermore, Jews who observe Shabbat do not “go out” on that day, no clubbing, no partying, etc… Although this is fun, it is not relaxation. Hence a distinction between fun and relaxation is made, and relaxation is favored. Other than the physical relaxation emphasized, is a mental and spiritual relaxation. If you are not working, not driving, and not partying, then your mind and your soul are allowed to relax as well. You do not need to worry yourself with the concerns of the week, nor with your studies, nor with your financial situation, nor with the girl that you like, nor with anything. It is a true opening-up time which allows for total relaxation; body, mind, and spirit, to fit the “hippyish” cliché.

Before I came to this conclusion, I used to TRY to make Shabbat special, I would TRY to observe it. I tried to force physical actions into Shabbat hoping that they would become significant to me, but that never happened. As a result, Shabbat was just another day for me, just a day to go partying with my friends on. But now, a couple of years later, Shabbat is quite different for me. It is an extremely humbling experience and I am forced to tie it back to one thing; the visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

This was the day after we visited it. It just so happens that on the Birthright trip that I went on in the Winter, we stayed in Jerusalem for about one and a half weeks. On Friday night (the days officially start at night), Shabbat, we had the choice of going to a Shabbat service of our choice of observance level; reconstructionist, reform, conservative, orthodox. I wanted to do something different, so I went to the reform one where a cute girl proceeded to show us how to do Yoga. I decided that, while this was fun, that it really wasn’t what I should be doing. I felt as if I was missing out on something, and that I was letting something down. I felt as if I wasn’t helping to bind the week as it properly should have been (for myself and for Jews, and for Shabbat itself, which is considered a queen in Judaism). Although at the time, these thoughts were not conscious, I had a nagging urge telling me to go to the Orthodox service. Luckily the Yoga session ended quickly, so I put on my socks and shoes and hurried down to the Temple. I arrived there and the people were so happy to greet us, American Jews coming to Israel, to Jerusalem, to observe Shabbat. They were happy that people were actually coming. We entered the synagogue and sat down. As the service went on, I began to feel somewhat alienated from the service since I did not know the prayers they were singing (they must have been Ashkenaz or something), so I really felt nothing. But I was happy about something. In Judaism, Shabbat is a queen that comes to greet you, and you invite her with open arms and let her in. You can say that this is what I felt in the Yoga room, that I was missing something and that something was missing me, it must have been ha-malkat ha-Shabbat, the Shabbat queen. Here I was in a synagogue, with fellow Jews, in Israel, in Jerusalem, on Shabbat, and we were singing and praying and banging on the piews, never silently allowing Shabbat to enter the room, but accepting her with a grand ovation, “Please please come in, you are welcome!” The more vigor I accepted her with, the more my heart opened, and the more my heart opened, the more I was able to grasp the significance of this moment in time and this place and with these people. When the numbers on your digital watch change from 11:59 PM to 12:00 AM, you hear a little beep and you know it is the next day. But that is how science records time-changes, this is how the human heart records; my heart was beating furiously, my head was tickling, my eyes were slightly watering, my breathing became fast, my heart expanded with the feeling of love and connection to my fellow Jews, and at the same time, with the world and all that were in it, I felt that I was going to explode, I felt higher, as if I was being lifted, I felt in-tune with everything, a part of it yet still a vessel of my own, I felt the actual fabric of time, the actual flowing of the river and it was flowing through me and through the synagogue and through the streets and through Jerusalem and through Israel and probably extending its way through the world in its own fashion, I felt time CHANGING with no breaks, I felt Shabbat coming, and it was here. This might have been what one calls an epiphany, and it all started off with walking into a synagogue and feeling nothing, it changed me.

That night, we had the option of going to a Shabbat service at night. Considering what I just had felt at the synagogue and that this was new to me, I decided not to go, but to let the events and emotions of this night to sink in. In the morning, we also had the option of waking up early and going to a Shabbat service, but I decided on the opposite, I stayed in bed. I decided to fulfill my “relaxation duties” to God and to myself, I would live out the Shabbat as it was intended, I would rest in my bed. Remaining in bed was my Shabbat service, the sounds of my breathing while sleeping were my prayers, fully living out what Shabbat was about, relaxation. In this, the meaning of Shabbat and of worshipping God reached their highest significance for me, the highest that I had ever felt, and it was so easily done! But it had not easily come, it was rather quite painful and it started with the visit to the Wailing Wall, which I felt had opened me up, raised me a little higher, showed me the world as it was, taken something out, maybe put something inside, and caused me to cry like a little boy as if no one was watching at that stone structure. I cried like the day I was born next to Suzanne and Dan, who cried like me, and we hugged each other. That was a turning point on my Birthright trip, and it was a turning point in my life, and I don’t intend to let what I learned that day become useless.

Almost as beautiful as the welcoming of Shabbat, is the leaving of Shabbat. The service wishing Shabbat away is called “havdalah,” which literally means the physical word “separation,” or “distinction.” Havdalah does just that, it separates Shabbat from the rest of the week. Again is the concept of time and beginning and end. But there is one difference; Shabbat is not considered to be just a time that is different from others, it actually gains a sort of higher status than the rest of the days. It is not just a different time, it is in a different time, it is in a different place, it is entirely different from the week which follows it, it is holy, and havdalah seeks to physically, mentally, and spiritually make that difference, to build that little wall between the holy and the normal (which is also holy, mind you). This is something that I did not understand before my experiences in Israel on Shabbat, and I never understood when others did it. When I heard people speaking about Shabbat, trying to explain to me certain things, I considered it, and them, foolish, and I as understanding and wise. I wondered why they didn’t make a better effort in trying to explain to me the significance of Shabbat. But it would have been fruitless, as fruitless as the previous sentence in trying to explain what Shabbat was. Now I realize that something that I didn’t then, and probably something that those who I asked did realize, that I was asking a question that could not be answered, or at least not by a human. It took those experiences that happened to me that day to answer my question, and they are totally unproduceable by a human being. It was the events of the day and the day before it that made it happen, it was life, it was nature, it was me not knowing what was going to happen, it was walking in the dark, it was amazing, it was God.

June 17th, 2003 – On Time

The Earth revolves around the Sun giving us a period of time of light and a period of time of dark, a full day. The modern world considers the rising of the sun the “beginning” of the day and when it sets the “end” of the day. Science, rigidly living by the sectioning off of the concept of time, considers the “day,” or the “morning” to start at 12:00 AM, which is interestingly enough labeled “midnight.” Of course, by this logic, the day is twenty-four hours long and “ends” at 11:59 PM, at night. But there is an inherent flaw in this reasoning, although it is very convenient. Assuming that time can be accurately sectioned off in minutes, it is logical to say that 11:59 is the last minute of the day and that 12:00 AM is the first minute of the next, but can time not be broken into infinitely small units of measurement? If this is true then what happens to the last millisecond of the day? Or to a measurement even smaller than that, or smaller than that? If you think like this, time is not a series of blocks of time, however small they may be, but actually a superfluous stream in which we insert breaks in order to allow ourselves to understand it better. The Jewish night, according to modern Judaism, starts when the sun goes down. This is determined by the sighting of the first three stars in the sky when enough light from the sun has disappeared so that the first three stars (dim lights) can be seen. The Jewish morning must start when the sun comes up, that is, when no more stars are visible. This provides that a day is never actually 24 hours long, but shifting during the seasons of the year according to the placement of the Earth in relation to the Sun.

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