The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 5


Interrupting Torah to Admire a Tree

The rabbis say that whoever is studying Torah and interrupts his study to say, "How beautiful is this tree!" damages his own soul (Avot 3:9, paraphrased). This teaching often disturbs people since it seems contrary to our innate feeling. How can we interpret it? There is a tale about the Imrei Emet of Ger, who was extremely punctual. You could set your watch by his movements. He spent this amount of time davvening, then at that split second, he'd turn to Torah study, at another split second to eat and so on. Once a visiting rabbi asked him, "Rebbe, I know that you're punctual to the second. But what do you do if you're in the middle of studying a mishnah teaching and it's the time to eat?" "Then," said the Rebbe, "the meal is the second half of the mishnah." Devotion, God-consciousness, must be continuous. And for the high people it is and seamless. One activity passes into the next and their God meditation remains unruffled. So the ancient rabbis are telling us in Avot: When you're studying Torah and you interrupt to admire a tree, you've damaged your soul. You should turn from Torah to Nature and back without interruption, because both Torah and Nature are full of the divine word and message. May we remember this thought next Tu BeShvat, and may we cling to the Torah, which is a tree of life, and to Nature and its trees.

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In the haftorah to parshat Lech Lecha (Isaiah 40) God tells us through the prophet: "Have you not known, have you not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the far reaches of the earth, is never tired or weary. ... He gives energy to the tired (notain koach la'ya'aif; Morning Blessings) and adds strength to the person without power. Youths may tire and become fatigued, and young men may stumble. But those who wait for God [or: hope in God] will renew their energy, they shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not weary; they shall walk and not tire."

For four years I suffered from a fatigue problem that seemed to be psychologically based; its onset came after my beloved mother's death and on the High Holidays. It was not chronic fatigue, which is severely debilitating, but it was bad enough. After the first year it abated but I was still at only 75% of my normal energy. Then I decided I had had enough; I would not reconcile to this diminution of my energy forever. So I resolved to do anything and everything I could to fix my predicament. I bought two good books on fatigue and began to read one. But I didn't get very far because my situation was healed before I was very far into the book and had not implemented any of the teachings from the book. What happened? As part of my project to overcome my difficulty I began to pray again and again about it to God. I used the verse from Isaiah as a mantra: "Those who hope in God] will renew their energy!" When I was walking on the street or doing other tasks, I would say that verse and utter something on the order of the prayer: "God, I'm using my energy to serve You. Please give me more energy and I'll continue to serve You even more!" This musing fits with hasidic thought, which teaches a meditation to reflect doing activity on that your energy to act is coming from God. And elsewhere, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that the way to pray is to put all your energy into one word and God will give you renewed strength and energy to say the next word; this concept applies to all activity. I kept on uttering the mantra from Isaiah (not continuously but often) and praying in this way. Praise God, my fatigue utterly disappeared after about three weeks! Four years of suffering gone! Praise God! So I want to tell people suffering from fatigue or other ailments to pray and pray again, with a mantra if they can find a verse that fits their situation.

But I was extremely delighted the last time we read parashat Lech Lecha to discover in the haftorah the verse from the Morning Blessings and the verse I used as a mantra together. But I found something else: That section of Isaiah explains why the mantra healed me. It says that God is never tired or weary. He gives energy to the tired and adds strength to the weary. The meaning: God is never weary or tired. Therefore, when you are near Him, in His presence by means of a prayer or a mantra, you become like Him, you take on His attributes-- and are not tired.

When I was fatigued and occasionally talked about my condition to others-- sometimes merely to explain my inability to keep up when walking, etc.-- I found out that more than a few people are fatigued. You would never know about it though until you reveal your own troubles. So again I want to tell people with fatigue or other physical ailments, don't despair. Resolve to do what you can to heal yourself, but go beyond that because God makes sick and He heals; without Him one can't heal. Pray to Him again and again, use a mantra, and God willing you will be cured. May God bring healing to all who ail. (For further thoughts about repeated prayed, see the teaching by that title.)

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Repeated Prayer

I recently read a book about an Israeli Sephardic tzaddik of our generation who recently passed away, Rabbi Yosef Dayan. Rabbi Yosef, a kabbalist of Syrian background, was unusual in a number of ways. One, he spent a tremendous amount of time discovering and uncovering the tombs of ancient tzaddikim throughout the Land of Israel. I'm not quite sure how he did this but he did. And he spent long periods of time at various of these holy sites, sometimes surrounded by hostile Arabs (although he, in his cleaving to God, was fearless). The Jewish People has returned to its ancient land. Certainly someone had to uncover our ancient holy tombs and sites. Rabbi Yosef did this. Two, he remained unmarried; very unusual for a tzaddik. Three, and one of the main things we can learn from Rabbi Yosef, is that, in his teaching, he stressed repeated prayer. He often quoted the Talmud that if your prayer is not answered, pray more, continue to pray and to hope in God. This was Rabbi Dayan's approach. He did not make do with a short prayer offered once. He taught regularity and constancy in prayer, according to Rabbi Hanina's teaching in Berachot 32a: "Everyone who prays longs, his prayer does not return empty." Rabbi Dayan explained the need to pray much and not to tire, until our request is received in heaven: Because of our little worth and deficient deeds, we don't have the power to make a prayer effective at once. We need to persist in the avodah (service) of prayer, until we succeed in splitting the barrier that separates us from God. He also said that, when you pray for something, you should pray using the same words each time. (This explains the efficacy of a mantra.) Any change in the wording, he said, causes difficulties in the prayer being accepted. He said further that it is desirable to focus on one request, not many, because, according to the Sages: If you grab too much, you grab nothing. Rabbi Dayan taught that it is helpful to offer tzedaka when praying and to pray at a holy site. (From the book Od Yosef Hai)

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Mitzvot in the Home

Rabbi Sholom Schwadron, the late Maggid of Jerusalem, once said:

People look for mitzvot out on the street but they don't realize that everything is inside their own home. Let me tell you a story: More than twenty years ago one of my little children became ill and, not wanting the other children to become infected, I decided to have them stay with my mother for a day or two. So I was walking in the street, from my neighborhood, Shaarei Hesed, to Beit Yisrael, where my mother lived. On the way, I met Rabbi Eizik Shor. "Good morning Reb Sholom!" he said. And I greeted him in return. "Where are you going?" he asked. I told him that my child was sick and that I was on the way to my mother's with the other children, and why.

There was a moment of silence, which Rabbi Eizik broke by saying, "Nu, why?" I didn't understand what he was asking and didn't know what to answer. Actually, the gaon wanted to know what my motive was in bringing the children to their grandmother. "Why? What for?" he continued. I was a little irritated because I thought I had answered him by telling him what I was doing at fist, so I just repeated myself. Then, Rabbi Eizik fixed me with his glance and said, "You mean, the big animal is taking the small animal." [Because animals too give tender care to their children.] He continued, "What is the true thought a Jew should have? That you are going to do a kindness for Jewish children who happens to be your children."

"Do you understand?" said Rabbi Sholom to his audience. It's completely simple! One is just going to do an act of kindness.

That same morning when I returned to Shaarei Hesed, I met my wife coming toward me carrying two buckets of water from the well. I rushed to her and whispered to myself, "I am prepared and ready to do an act of kindness with a Jewish woman, who happens to be my wife." And I took the buckets from her. For about half a year after that, I went about with the words of Rabbi Eizik, so that I was always uttering the words "I am prepared and ready to do an act of kindness," when I was helping friends, or my children, and in many things I was doing; I did everything according to his teaching. A sage can turn dust to gold!

You can interpret every act in your home this way! Many men and women think they are not accompishing anything. They're just raising their children ... but every step you take at home with a good intention is "a golden bit of merchandise." To raise children to be strong and healthy, to nourish them with Torah and piety, etc. etc. is kindness, and Torah too [that is, Torah in fulfillment, not just in study].

Let me tell you another story of something that happened when I was with my master, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian. We were walking along on the street, when Rabbi Eliyahu saw a Jew repairing the pavement, and said to me, "Look at this Jew absorbed in mitzvot; every minute he's performing the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel. The only thing missing here is the intention to do a mitzvah! Because if one's intention is only to make a living from one's work, one loses all the value of the mitzvah. Everything depends on one's intention (kavvanah)."

And us? Mitzvot are scattered about in every corner. If we think just a little we'll have everything [needed to doing many mitzvot]. But the main thing is not to just run about outside on the streets‹that is, on the streets too, but not just there.

That is the meaning of the teaching in Or Yahel: "If the night watchman who guards the whole city from disaster and destruction, acted for the sake of kindness ... there would be no one greater than him, to go alone, every night, in rain and snow, and never to abandon his post! Nevertheless, we see that a person who serves as a guard for years can still remain a thief or murderer or be the lowest of men. His acts of kindness have no effect on him to elevate him. Why? Because his only motive in his work are to make a few dollars, not to do good to others! Shouldn't we give some thought to this great loss, to what he's giving up for those few dollars?-- Many thousands of exalted mitzvot! the guarding of men, women, and children, the whole city. If he did such wonderful acts of kindness with the motive of doing kindness, how spiritually rich he would be! And now, for a few dollars, he's lost everything."

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In the Merit of Prostration

The ancient rabbis taught: The Temple was only built in the merit of prostration. And the future Temple will only be rebuilt in the merit of prostration (paraphrased from Yalkut Shimoni on 1 Samuel 1:28). If this is so, I ask myself, why are we not prostrating? If you look in the prayerbook, numerous prayers, particularly psalms, refer to prostration. But the word histachaviya is not always translated properly. For example, in the morning prayers: "prostrate to God in the beauty of holiness." This is often translated "bow," but prostrate means fully flat on the ground, not just bowing. There was frequent prostrating in the ancient Temple‹that is why the Temple will be rebuilt in the merit of prostration. But perhaps the point is that we have to start prostrating and then God will give us back the Temple.

We can learn from our Muslim cousins. Anyone who watches television sees that bowing and kneeling is an integral part of Muslim prayer. That was true in our Temple too but it has been lost. Today we only prostrate on the High Holidays, and sad to say, often only quickly and without true sincerity.

What is the meaning of prostration? Utter submission to God's will; complete humility. It says in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, as one of the miracles of the Temple: "that although they were crowded when standing, they had room when prostrating" (5:7). The miracle is that when we are humble before God, when we utterly submit to Him, we make room for everyone else around us.

Rabbi Akiba bowed and prostrated so much he was all over the room when he prayed (Berachot 31). Various of the hasidic rebbes prostrated at certain points in the davvening (see my Jewish Spiritual Practices, pp. 169-172). There might be an issue of space in the synagogue of course; how would we have room to prostrate? Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said that a person should be able to prostrate while standing erect. Sometimes I do this during davvening: I imagine myself prostrating. But I think we should take the words of the rabbis literally and begin finding ways to prostrate in synagogue. Perhaps someone called up for an aliyah can prostrate before ascending the bimah. Only by lowering and humbling yourself before God, does God lift you up and give you the aliyah. A clean sheet can be provided for this purpose. It would certainly inspire others watching, to see someone flat in prostration before the One and Only One.

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Being Like God

We are told to become servants of God, yet people don't ordinarily have a high opinion of servitude. In the materialistic world, being a servant is demeaning. But not so in the spiritual world. In the spiritual world, you are what you serve. If you serve Truth you are truth. If you serve God you are Godly. The Rabbis say "A servant of a king is like a king." Rabbi Akiva Eiger, one of the greatest gaonim of the last century, was once invited to a family engagement ceremony but being elderly and weak, he was not able to attend. He asked his friend, the gaon, Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margoliot of Brody, to go in his place. Now, Rabbi Ephraim was known to value every moment of his time; every minute, every second was devoted to God and studying Torah. Yet, he went to the ceremony and was sitting there utterly relaxed with no anxiousness about returning to his holy studying. They asked him about it and he replied, "The Rabbis say that ŒA person's agent is like him.' So now, being an agent of the greatest of the great, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, and attending in his place, I'm like him. Why should I hurry to leave?" When we do God's will, we are His agent. Shouldn't we take advantage of that joy and privilige? When we act as God's servant, we are not demeaned, God-forbid, but elevated to the highest sphere of being Godly.

The Holy One, blessed be He, said: "I will join My name to their [Israel's] name"(Y. Ta'anit).

What other nation or people has the name of God in their name as does our holy people, YisraEL [El means "God"]?

(Yitzhak Buxbaum)

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Copyright 2004-2005, Yitzhak Buxbaum. All rights reserved.