Thursday, July 14, 2016

Spirit vs Form - Kavana. Chukat

For 45 minutes I was in another zone as I combined mindfulness and meditation with my ritual morning blessings. I felt spiritually uplifted and filled with a deep gratitude for the wisdom of animals, my eyesight, having all my needs met and the dignity of clothing.

That was another morning.

This morning was a completely different story. This morning I recited the same blessings but I arrived late and feeling stressed about many things. Prayer is meant to be the "service of the heart[i]" but my mumbling this morning was just robotic compliance.

It’s now 8:53 am. I just sat down at my desk at work, but I have been on my way to the office since 7:05 after my uninspired worship. I had the wrong combination for the back gate of the Synagogue, so I missed my bus. Instead I tried the train but neglected to check the sign so I jumped on to the wrong train. 4 trains later I am finally here and I am not so sure that what matters is really love and truth, or if compliance with requirements, times and rules is actually more important than it would seem. Clearly, my work fostering acceptance and belonging depends on attending to these technicalities.

Religion can be inspiring and can engage the heart and mind, but it can also be experienced as oppressive. In our Torah reading this week we learn about the red cow that would be killed and burned; its ashes sprinkled on water to be used as part of a purification ritual[ii]. This commandment is expected to be obeyed because God has decreed it and we “have no permission to question it[iii]”. We are called to subjugate our minds to the will of God[iv] because obedience, not fulfilment is valued. 

On the other side of this argument, in this reading we hear that Moses and Aaron were reprimanded after Moses hit a rock, causing water to miraculously flow. They were instructed to speak to the rock[v] rather than hit it. The symbolism of talking to the rock vs. hitting it is instructive. Forty years earlier, Moses also drew water from a rock when he hit it by God’s command.  But four decades before, Moses and Aaron had been leading slaves; they were accustomed to being told what to do (the dominant approach, symbolized by a stick), but now they were free people. The “stick” approach was no longer needed – now it was time for a “words”.[vi]

The themes of submission vs. engagement of the heart can be discerned in some of the details of the “stick” story. Although God had instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock, He also instructed him to take “the staff” along. This is puzzling: why bring a stick at all[vii]? One answer is that “The stick” they were told to bring along was the staff of Aaron that miraculously sprouted almonds[viii]. This dry piece of wood had miraculously produced water as part of the miracle of the almonds and was to be used as inspiration for the rock that was going to be asked to also produce water. The symbolism of ‘the’ stick (rather than any stick) is not of a lifeless instrument of coercion but of a fusion between obedience and engagement.

The episode with the rock follows the death of the elder sister of Moses, Miriam, from whom Moses and Aaron had previously sought advice. Perhaps her feminine influence could have helped her brothers be more alert to the nuances of God’s command?[ix]. Instead, Moses missed the subtle point about “the stick” of Aaron with the almonds and its implied message and instead hit the rock with “his (own) stick[x]”. One lesson for us from Moses’ mistake is the need for being “very settled” and attentive in carrying out instructions[xi] so that we don’t fail to achieve their purpose, rather than being rushed like Moses was, or jumping on the train without checking the board to see where it was going.

The apparently irrational ritual of the burning red cow is also complex. It has elements that can engage the heart. One theme is the quest for balance and pursuit of the middle path, which can be inferred from the inclusion of a piece of wood from a tall cedar tree and a lowly hyssop plant in the fire. It symbolizes the message that we should not be arrogant like the cedar, nor should we be too humble like the hyssop, instead we must work toward the golden mean[xii]

A message of our reading can be to combine the pursuit of transcendence and spiritual expression with submission to rules and rituals. In fact, I think if I was more obedient to the requirements to always pray with Kavana, to do an intentional ritual hand washing when arriving at the synagogue[xiii] and to be on time, then even on an off day, the morning blessings words of gratitude would have greater power to engage my spirit.  The social justice, inspirational side of Judaism is nurtured by the adherence to rules and rituals and the resulting refinement of the spirit and growth in God’s consciousness.  A bird needs two wings to fly, one is love that motivates our positive activity and the other is fear which motivates obedience to prohibitions and rules[xiv].

[i] Talmud, Taanis 2a
[ii] Numbers 19
[iii] Cited in Rashi to Numbers 19:2, the ritual of the red heifer is the ultimate example of the Chuka category commandments which are not understandable.
[iv] The words “this is the statue of the Torah” is also taken to mean that it would be better for a person to treat all the laws of the Torah as unexplainable commandments rather than try to find reasons for them- R. Mendel of Kotzk, quoted by R. Zeev of Strikov, in Greenberg, A, Y, (1992) Torah Gems, Y Orenstien/Yavneh Publishing Tel Aviv, this is consistent with the emphasis in Chabad Chasidism on Bittul, self-nullification. There is another very strong side of Chasidism that emphasises self-refinement and spiritual engagement.
[v] Numbers 20:8
[vi] Sacks, (2009) Chief Rabbi Jonathan, Future Tense, Hodder & Stoughton London
[vii] Klei Yakar
[viii] Numbers 17:17-23
[ix] Ralbag makes the connection with Miriam ‘s death and the loss of her advice, which he assumes was frequently sought, he does not refer to the feminine aspect which is my own addition
[x] Numbers 20:11
[xi] Ralbag
[xii] Seforno on Numbers 19:2
[xiii] The custom I am familiar with is for Jews to wash their hands when arriving at the Synagogue. Typical orthodox synagogues will have a wash basin near the entrance, but technically one can ritually wash one’s hands at home. Not doing it again at the synagogue is a missed opportunity for a “kavana” enhancing ritual
[xiv] Tanya

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