Sealed with a Kiss-The Mezuzah

 

The mezuzah is a small, often decorative box that contains a scroll with the words of the Torah. It is really like a mini Torah, because it is written in the same manner and with the same materials as the full scroll. Its origins are in the Torah, in the paragraph of the Shema that we say twice a day. “And these words which I command you will be on your heart…and you will write them on the door posts and lintels of your home.”

These words were originally taken quite literally, and people wrote them right on the door posts themselves. The mezuzah as we know it today was developed to give the words greater dignity and permanence.

Many people think of the mezuzah as a good luck charm, some to such an extent that when something bad happens, they check to see whether the scroll of the mezuzah is flawed. This was never the intent.

The mezuzah is a statement of the values of the home. When we go out into the world in the morning it is a reminder to live by our values of compassion and honesty. When we return home it is a reminder of how we are supposed to treat the people inside the house. We may have had a long day, but it is not excuse for taking it out on our loved ones. We take a look at the mezuzah, perhaps kiss it, take a breath, and then go to work or school or anything else we have to do that day, and again when we return.

Let me say something about kissing the mezuzah, and the Torah during the Torah service, and when saying the blessings over the Torah. The original reason for kissing the Torah or mezuzah was not as a sign of affection, though that is certainly a good thought to have in mind while doing it. The purpose for kissing the Torah is as a sign of agreement, showing that we believe in and agree to live by its words. It is to help us remember who we are and where we came from. It is a sign that we are a people created by the values of the Torah, a people that on a daily basis is to embrace the challenges of life with patience, kindness and persistence.

How Torah and Cheesecake Unite Heaven and Earth

 

Shavuot is the most important holiday of the year if you really want to understand Jewish philosophy. It celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. I want to focus today more on how the Torah was given, than on the content itself, as well as how we observe the holiday ourselves. It is the easiest of the major holidays to observe, requiring Torah study and cheesecake. More on that in a moment.

God does not bring the people, or even just Moses up to heaven to give the Torah. Rather, God comes down to Earth, speaking from a lowly mountain in a desolate part of the world. There is a powerful message that God reached down to us, without first requiring that we elevate ourselves. God gave the Torah in language we understood. It is a reminder to us that we have to meet people, especially our loved ones, at their own level if we truly want to communicate with them. We should never feel that we are above them.

If you noticed, I have been talking about how God gave the Torah to us, not just those in the wilderness. There is a tradition that every person who would ever be Jewish, whether by birth or choice, was present at the giving of the Torah. It means that even if we have not yet studied Torah, or if we do not read a word of Hebrew, the Torah is already in our hearts, ready to be accessed and nurtured. Each of us has within us the potential for spiritual greatness.

In terms of observance of Shavuot, there are really just two requirements. As I mentioned above, it is Torah study and cheesecake. Cheesecake is not a strict requirement. You may substitute blinztes or any other delicious foods. Dairy is the ideal because of a tradition that the Israelites in the wilderness refrained from eating meat until they got the laws of the Torah, but the important thing is to have wonderful meals together.

According to the Sfas Emes, the second Gerrer rebbe, Shavuot is the only holiday on which it is a commandment to study Torah and have beautiful meals. He said that it symbolizes the unification of Heaven and Earth, of the spiritual and material worlds.

This is a powerful idea because so many people who think of themselves as religious reject the joys of the material world, a world that God created. So many secularly oriented people reject the spiritual aspects of the world. Judaism says the ideal is a balance, a middle way between the two. The material world gives us the strength to maintain our spirituality. Our spiritual practice elevates the material and keeps things in perspective.

This Shavuot, if you come to services, or just study on your own, and have a nice nosh after, you will beuniting the upper and lower worlds, and bringing God down to Earth again, just like at Mount Sinai.

Havdalah-The Being of Lightness That Makes Life Bearable

Havdallah, the ceremony that ends Shabbat, is one of the most beautiful and poignant Jewish rituals. We are grateful for a day of tranquility with family and friends, but are wistful that we are reentering the everyday world, with its stresses and demands.

Just as Shabbat begins with wine and candlelight and beautiful aromas, so too does Shabbat end. We light a special candle, and say a blessing over it, and the wine, and spices.

When we say the blessing on the light you will notice people holding their hands toward the candle, in order for the light to reflect upon them. There is a fascinating explanation for this from the kabbalistic tradition.

In order to understand it, you have to know that the Hebrew word for light and for skin are homonyms, that is, they sound the same when you hear them, but are spelled differently. The word for light is ohr spelled with an aleph. The word for skin is also ohr, but spelled with an ayin.

Here is the explanation. When Adam and Eve were created, they did not have regular skin like you and I do. Rather, there skin was pure light. They were literally radiant. When they turned against each other, they lost that luminous aspect of themselves and became mundane.

Holding our hands toward the light on Havadallah is a reminder to us of our capacity to live lives of light and inspiration. Our real selves are brilliant, pure and luminescent. The everyday world often causes us to lose sight of that, making us feel cloaked with burdens. Shabbat reveals our true nature. Havdallah is a reminder to carry that feeling into the week. We are not our tasks. We are our radiant souls.

Let me say a word about the lights of Shabbat themselves. On Friday night we light separate candles. We are glad to be coming together, but we still feel a little distant from each other and ourselves. By the end of Shabbat, we use a single candle with many wicks wrapped together. This represents the deep connection to our family that we renew, but also our integrated and whole selves. For twenty five beautiful hours we were truly and fully human. Let us never forget that during the rest of the week.

A Jewish Time Machine: Connecting Past, Present and Future

 

The siddur is not just a prayerbook.  It is really a Jewish time machine, but one that actually works. A regular time machine, like in the movies, transports you to different eras. A Jewish time machine brings different eras through you.

Allow me to explain. This may take some time. The siddur that we use today contains prayers that Jews have said for over a thousand years. The two essential prayers, the Shema and the Amidah (Shemoneh Esrai) are over two thousand years old.

When we say these prayers we are saying the exact words that Jews throughout our history have said. I like to think that we are giving voice to all our ancestors. We are bringing their spirit into our own time. I think they would have been thrilled to know that Jews pray in a way that would still be largely recognizable to them.

This is why I think there is value in praying in Hebrew even if you do not necessarily understand the words. Prayer is about the heart, and the heart understands. The translation certainly helps with the content, but I love the fact that Jews from all generations could get together in one place, and even if they could not have a conversation, could at least pray together.

The siddur is about the future, too. I believe that if we really could travel through time, and go into the future, we may not recognize a lot of what we see, but we could go into a synagogue, and immediately respond to what was happening.

In many ways, what we do today creates that future. I know it is not easy sometimes to connect to the words, or that the Hebrew can feel distant. In reality, though, it is those words that really connect our people across every country and throughout all time. Just being at a service brings together all ancestors and our future generations to come.

The siddur is not just a prayerbook.  It is really a Jewish time machine, but one that actually works. A regular time machine, like in the movies, transports you to different eras. A Jewish time machine brings different eras through you.

Allow me to explain. This may take some time. The siddur that we use today contains prayers that Jews have said for over a thousand years. The two essential prayers, the Shema and the Amidah (Shemoneh Esrai) are over two thousand years old.

When we say these prayers we are saying the exact words that Jews throughout our history have said. I like to think that we are giving voice to all our ancestors. We are bringing their spirit into our own time. I think they would have been thrilled to know that Jews pray in a way that would still be largely recognizable to them.

This is why I think there is value in praying in Hebrew even if you do not necessarily understand the words. Prayer is about the heart, and the heart understands. The translation certainly helps with the content, but I love the fact that Jews from all generations could get together in one place, and even if they could not have a conversation, could at least pray together.

The siddur is about the future, too. I believe that if we really could travel through time, and go into the future, we may not recognize a lot of what we see, but we could go into a synagogue, and immediately respond to what was happening.

In many ways, what we do today creates that future. I know it is not easy sometimes to connect to the words, or that the Hebrew can feel distant. In reality, though, it is those words that really connect our people across every country and throughout all time. Just being at a service brings together all ancestors and our future generations to come.

 

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