Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur Musings

Yom Kippur is a different experience for me each year as I get older. When I was very young, I stayed at home and played with my cousins while my parents went to shul. As I became a bit older, I went with my parents for Kol Nidre and part of the day, but ended up walking home in the afternoon and stayed there until they came home for our break-the-fast party. After I became bar-mitzvah, I went with my parents to shul both night and day, but used to come home during the break - until I realized how pointless and tiring that was - after which I stayed in shul the entire day.

Then my 2 years in Israel changed everything, and Yom Kippur became the epitome of spiritual experiences. Sufficed to say, davening right next to the Kodash Kodashim in a beis medrish full of yeshiva students, alumni, rabbeim, and roshei yeshiva will do that to you.

I was always worried about matching that incredible uplifting feeling in America, but suprisingly enough, Yom Kippur at my hometown shul was incredible my first year back, and has only gotten better each year, believe it or not.

This year I managed to start the night off right by not over-drinking water during the seudah hamafsekes, and instead sufficed with a typical amount of water accompanied by a lot of grapes. A friend's mother once told me about the slow-release hydration effect of grapes when I was eating the seudah hamafsekes with his family before Tisha B'Av - and it works! I had my Rav Soloveitchik machzor to inspire me with its enlightening commentary, and a full stomach that allowed me to fully focus on the task at hand. The davening was lively and engaging, and our chazan was on the top of his game, and davening was over before I knew it. I was so absorbed that I didn't notice the time flying by.

One thing I've noticed since I started going to Kol Nidre with my parents many years ago was that the temperature outside on the walk back home has always been noticeably cooler than the day before, even that very afternoon. It certainly makes the long walk to our house (around a mile) much more enjoyable. It's an amazing sight to see dozens of Jews walking down the road in little groups - even those who may not necessarily walk to shul every Shabbos decides to partake in the festive return home.

I used to be a little puzzled at the happy atmosphere that pervaded the trip from shul, but after doing a good bit of reading about the chag, Yom Kippur is actually quite a happy time, particularly with the assured national forgiveness. So regardless if people realize that fact or not, the jovial feelings in abundance were quite appropriate.

After I woke up this morning, I found the temperature outdoors to be skin-tingling cool. This fall season is my absolute favorite weather. The warm sun at your back, and the cool breeze blowing through you - sending a bit of a shiver down your spine, almost as though your it touched your soul. Contemplating things on the spiritual side; if Yom Kippur is indeed the day that G-d is most available and closest to us in proximity, is it any wonder that walking through the sudden, cool breeze feels other-worldly? It is almost as though a gentle embrace fills the air. Even if you're caught off guard by the coolness, the warm sun acts as a balance, and the two feelings swirl around you like a palpable aura of sorts. The exhilarating sensation is wholly unique and rather pleasing. I've only experienced this sort of weather in my hometown, and thankfully the season lasts a good few weeks into November.

Although I started off the morning a bit tired, I seemed to gain momentum over the course of the day, with my physical strength for standing up and mental clarity to access proper kavana for davening increasing steadily as the day went on. Rather than fighting to remain on my feet for all of Ne'ilah (it was a custom of my grandfather to stand the entire time of Ne'ilah, regardless of how he was feeling, as a segulah for the new year), I had no trouble at all. I didn't have a headache and I wasn't hungry.

Maybe this was a tiny preview of what it is truly like to be sustained from the radiance of the Shechina, to feed off of that intense power like the angels - which is what we strive to emulate through our self denial and afflictions. By reducing the strength of our physical self, the spiritual inner being is given the chance to shine through and become dominant once a year. If that's really what I tapped into, then I look forward to an even better experience next year!

I think this was also the first Yom Kippur where I was aware of my own short-comings in much greater detail, and spent a lot of time meditating on the Ashamnu listing and the Al Chayts, with specific incidents in mind. I felt much more connected to the davening and had a greater ability to summon remorse, as well as the resolve to do even better this year. I highly recommend checking out the extended Vidui commentary that is featured in the back of the Artscroll Machzor (also available as a separate pamphlet for those with other machzorim). Taking the time to read the entire thing, even if it makes you a bit late for the chazan's repetition, is totally worth it.

Stepping back to Elul, I think this year's "teshuva season" was more effective for me than in years past. One thing that helped me focus on the entire process was viewing the shofar blow each morning from a slightly different perspective. Instead of merely the soul stirring wake-up call that many perceive the shofar as, I thought of it as what it really is in essence, a war-horn, summoning the troops to muster up their strength for one final push toward victory.

Imagine if you will, a battlefield strewn with loose weapons, broken armor, and bodies of fallen soldiers. Many, many men of war lie sprawled out on the blood stained earth, seemingly lifeless.

Then one fellow, of the not-quite-dead-yet variety, sits up and rises to one knee. He strains, reaches behind him and yanks at the bugle horn strapped over his shoulder. Drawing in a breath that fills his lungs' maximum capacity, he lets loose with everything he has left. A piercing blast rings in the air of the hazy battlefield.

Eyes suddenly open on the faces of men long thought dead, beaten and brutalized by the overbearing enemy forces. Slowly, tired and bruised limbs shudder to life, and the soldiers reach out for their weapons that lay in the dirt nearby. One by one, and then in pairs and larger groups, the valiant army rises to its feet once again. Some stretch strained muscles, others readjust their armor fitting, yet others brush off the filth that stains their uniforms.

The courageous leader, who had seemingly been lost in combat, draws his sword and walks to the front of his reassembled forces. The men look from one to the other, weary smiles spreading across their sweat-stained faces. The general lifts his sabre in the air and pumps his sword-arm. The men answer as one, a great renewed fervor that is their wordless oath to pursue the invaders until they are have defended their homeland. The signal is given, and the revitalized army races to confront their enemy, their forthcoming victory the only thought on their minds.

For me, at any rate, this image was more inspiring in my own personal efforts to correct my mistakes and misdeeds of this past year. Sometimes it can be very hard to really effect any improvement when one becomes bogged down in regret over the past, which leads into the over-burdening sense of just how bad things have gotten. As HaRav Reuven Feinstein shlita said in his mussar schmooze at the new Glueck Beis Medrish - you have to focus on the positive things first, build yourself up a bit, and then focus on what needs fixing.

I found it more effective to perceive the shofar as a call of inspiration not to give up; that it was time to muster up the strength for a final push against the yetzer hara (and as many seforim write, the conflict with the yetzer hara IS a war). True, I may have stumbled here and there, even during Elul and during the Aseres Y'mai Teshuva (I certainly can't claim perfection as a character trait), but I felt much more motivated to get back up and continue to fight.

Yom Kippur was the final battle, and the tekiah at the end of Ne'ilah the victory signal. I really felt, almost on a physical level, as though some spiritual element was vacating my sense of awareness. A kind of emptiness began setting in as everything returned to the normal everyday-ness of life. While it may be true that the intensity of the spiritual high that has been building up through Yom Kippur is no longer there, the task at hand now is to look toward the near-future and grab onto Sukkos. As Rav Simon mentioned in his most recent parsha shiur, the shift from Yom Kippur's teshuva me'yirah transforms into Sukkos' teshuva me'ahava. The simcha of the chag becomes a rallying point for spiritual ascention.

Hopefully we can all carry the spiritual high we felt on Yom Kippur into an incredible and simcha-filled Sukkos, thereby making sure we get off to a great start in 5770!

Gut voch and Gut Yor to all.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Butterflies in the wind

On Friday afternoon, as I was about to get into my car to run a pre-Shabbos errand, I noticed a pair of orange/brown butterflies (not Monarchs) fluttering in the air above my head. It very clearly appeared as though they were playing in the sunlight that was shining through the nearby trees.

I stood there, quite mesmerized by their intricate lighter-than-air dancing - their graceful movements were quite beautiful. I really can't even begin to express in words how awestruck I was at these fragile little creatures floating around one another with expert choreography, almost like lovers (which they may have been - I'm not such an entomologist). The romance between them was almost palpable as they flitted to and fro, one circling the other, then reversing the pattern, ever so delicately.

Of course, the back of my mind began thinking about dating, and the eventual overflowing happiness achieved when one has found the right one. I hope that one day I can have the same boundless enthusiasm and energy for my wife as these two butterflies had for one another.

That's presuming they were more than just friends at any rate, but I've always been interested in being a herpetologist (reptiles and amphibians), rather than studying insects.

I eventually lost sight of the butterflies because they turned toward the sun, and I was too blinded by the brightness of the afternoon blaze to properly follow them. In fact, it almost looked as though they flew up into the light, vanishing with just as much grace as they had appeared.

Mah Rabu Ma'asecha HaShem...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My gym teacher gives the best mussar schmooze...

I actually had another idea for an inaugural post, but this will do nicely.

I was initially concerned about the "waste of time" that so many other guys seem worried about when I signed up for my first (and only - thank you reduced requirements) gym here at YU. As boring as it was probably going to be, I still hoped to at least physically benefit from the "Wellness and Fitness" course. It turns out that this particular gym is actually quite spiritually invigorating as well.

The instructor, a man originally from South Carolina, who later moved to Harlem in his early teens (or slightly before, I forget) is a perfect example of what I would call a righteous gentile. Most guys who attend YU come from somewhat sheltered Jewish backgrounds (*cough* Five Towns *cough*) and really have had no contact with, or developed relationships with people who aren't Jewish. Having relatives who live in the South that I grew up visiting regularly, I can say that things are a little bit different below the Mason-Dixon in smaller cities where Jews are in the clear minority in terms of population. Given that statistic, you often have the opportunity growing up to actually get to know someone who isn't Jewish and appreciate them for who they are as a person, instead of simply labelling them as "off limits" because of their religious beliefs. At any rate, I personally know several individuals in my own hometown who I would characterize as righteous gentiles, and now I have another to add to my little list.

Anyway, the fellow who instructs us how to do proper stretches, makes us run laps, do push ups and sit ups, and occasionally referees a pick-up basketball game is an amazing human being.

He regular gives us little pep-talks in the midst of discussing how our muscles work and what we should be doing to lower our total fat-to-muscle ratio, and often veers off onto topics of moral and ethical behavior. I wouldn't categorize him as a bible-thumper per say (since the term is often met with some derision), but he is a firm believer in the absolute truth of the biblical texts, and that G-d's will is the top priority in his life (second comes family, and third is his own self, but more on that in a minute). While his view is a little bit black and white, which leaves little leeway for morally ambiguous areas, his commitment to Truth and conviction that spirituality is just as important as being physically fit (if not more so) is very admirable.

For example, today he began his usual introduction, and quickly tangented into the best mussar schmooze I've heard this teshuva season. He spoke about his own life experience, growing up in South Carolina - and the impression that his parents and grandparents had on him. Both were married their whole lives, and demonstrated to him the significance of the covenant that marriage establishes. He remarked that the sacred bond of marriage is so sacrosanct in his eyes (since marriage is one of G-d's gifts to mankind) that it would be sacrilegious for him to even think about looking at another woman no matter how good she looks. The thought of cheating on his wife would never occur to him because he utterly rejects the horrid mindset that has pervaded society since the multiple social revolutions that occurred in the 60's (when he grew up). He even went on to discuss how terrible it is that nudity is being allowed on TV these days (even in its "least offensive" forms), decried the filthy pictures found in abundance on the Internet, and how men debase themselves by fooling around with multiple women instead of faithfully committing themselves to one woman.

The coach believes that the world has really gone down hill since the 60's, and the world has become far more anti-Semitic and racist than the times when he grew up with being called epithets and having to endure segregation and then integration. He prays for Israel just as diligently as he prays for the welfare of the United States, because he believes that Jerusalem is central to the meaning of history (past and present), that it belongs to the chosen people, and that we are in fact very significant in G-d's eyes.

Although he is a democrat, and never thought he'd live to see and African-American as President of the United States, he says that he will judge President Obama just the same as he judged former President Bush - entirely on his success or failure in his position and what he does for our country. He already has a slightly negative view based on the "bogus" claims that the recession is over - and noted that Obama will have to earn his vote in the next election. I find that mindset to be very honorable, since he divorces his own personal beliefs from the reality of the situation. (As a side note, I personally have nothing against having a person of non-white race as our President, I just wish we had a more qualified/experienced person filling the role, say Colin Powel - but time will prove Obama's worth, so I'll leave it at that).

As I mentioned before, he values the word of G-d as the absolute top priority in his life. Abiding by G-d's word gives a person happiness and success in this world, and appropriate reward in the next. He views people like King David and (ed: lehavdil) John the Baptist as people to look up to, since they risked their lives for G-d. He thinks David is an ultimate model of how people should be - when he became spiritually depressed he isolated himself in a cave (this is how coach said it) and wrote the Psalms to raise himself up - AND he danced with unparalleled joy before the Ark - all for the Glory of G-d. Additionally, as great as David was - the Bible clearly says he made some mistakes, but he repented for them fully - and that's a model we should all follow.

Second comes family - because you have to put others (especially those closest to you) before yourself. He particularly emphasized the significance of his wife's role in his life, and how his relationship with her had deepened over time - in addition to adding many dimensions to his spiritual relationship with G-d. Considering his own self was a distant third on the list of important elements in life, because you can't ignore your own value, but G-d and family come first. Taking care of your physical body, as well as nourishing your mind (he likes Shakespeare and reading in general) is very meaningful, because we are a physical representation of G-d on earth (hence the whole made in His image thing). People are basically walking spiritual conduits, and we all need to ensure that we sustain and maintain our physical selves for as long as we can - all the while reaping the spiritual benefits that life has to offer through study and devotion to G-d.

As coach continued talking, the guys who came late filed into the room, listened for a moment, then sat on the floor in a semi-circle absolutely mesmerized by the words they were hearing (I was standing, but I could have listened to him for another hour or two).

He concluded by saying that we all know we've done things this past semester (and last semester) that we regret and know were wrong - himself included. Everyone (again, himself included) has to properly turn to G-d and repent for these mistakes, and admit that we received absolutely no benefit from transgressing His will (interestingly enough, I read in an essay by HaRav Nebenzahl shlita, lehavdil, who said the exact same thing). The bottom line is that G-d's love for each of us allows us to return to Him with our full hearts, and He is waiting for the chance to forgive us.

After coach finished speaking, and we all stood dumbfounded by the amazing mussar we had all just experienced, a friend of mine turned to me and said that coach's mussar schmooze was better than his own rabbi's sermon from Rosh Hashana. While I mean no disrespect to my own Rabbi and his inspirational drasha, I couldn't agree more. I get the feeling that only at YU could I have encountered such an amazing person. I am SO happy to be taking this course, to improve my physical health, and get the best spiritual boosts I've had in this country since leaving Israel (with a few exceptions). G-d certainly works in wondrous ways...