Even the mundane can become holy

Sefer Baal Shem Tov Bereishit 114 ( Tzavaat HaRivash):

Also, serve God with all your might, because everything is “required [for Above].” 3 God wishes to be served in all possible ways. This means the following:

Sometimes one may walk and talk to others and is then unable to study [Torah]. Nonetheless, you must attach yourself to God and effect yichudim (unifications). 4 So also when on the road, thus unable to pray and study as usual, you must serve [God] in other ways.

Do not be disturbed by this. For God wishes to be served in all possible ways, sometimes in one manner and sometimes in another. That is why it happened that you had to go on a journey or talk to people, i.e., in order that you serve Him in that alternate way.

The Baal Shem Tov believes human beings have the capacity to multitask.  We have the ability to talk to someone and be able to focus on G-d.   This is illustrated by many stories of great rabbis, in the midst of a conversation with another person, the rabbi would be able to give the person full attention while also be focused on G-d.  Or the tailor who works on fixing garments while in the meantime is focus on unifications (Yichudim). 

The question for today is; Is the Baal Shem Tov really assuming this is a possibility for all people or is this the level of great people, while the rest of us are not capable of such singlemindedness? In my opinion, I do believe this line can be read and incorporated into any individual’s daily practice.  However, as is a noted argument amongst historians of Hasidism, I am not convinced that the Baal Shem Tov would have considered this to be for the general public, rather this was an idea that would be for the aspiring elite.

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17th of Tammuz?

The Chatam Sofer provides an interesting and creative answer to a question in the Gemara.  His answer comes from an approach in which the Neviim could not have erred.  This reminds me of the Abravanel who had to explain all the scribal errors in Jeremiah as resulting from his lacking in formal education.  Of course, the difficulty of that is that Jeremiah is also the attributed scribe of other Biblical works containing few errors.

The Gemara, assuming a uniformity for dating of events in the Jewish past, “(Taanis 28b) asks why we fast on 17 Tammuz if in Sefer Yirmiyahu it says that the walls of Yerushalayim were breached on the 9th of Tammuz and not on the 17th. The Gemara answers that the walls were breached on the 9th during Churban Bayis Rishon and on the 17th during Churban Bayis Sheni. Since we are in Galus from Churban Bayis Sheni, we fast on the 17th.”

The reality of professional athletes

The recent craze surrounding the phenomenal Stephen Strasbourg has caused many who write about sports to reflect on should’ves and could’ves.  Usually, the comparisons for Strasbourg include guys like Marc Prior, the former Cubs pitcher who ended up being injury prone after a few phenomenal years in the majors.  In an article in the New Republic, Noam Scheiber talks about a forgotten hero of the Washington Nationals, John Patterson, and how Patterson represents the reality of all sports, namely the challenges and difficulties of succeeding.

Has Hasidism Gone Astray?

This is the subject of a piece written by Art Green in this week’s Jewish Forward.  In his article, he describes how early Hasidic thinking was about love of G-d and infusing Judaism with spirit.  As with any grass-roots movement, however, events occurred making it main stream,  the teachings allowed for the eventuality of change and perceived loss of innocence.  Hasidism became dynastic, as each court saw familial successors and Hasidism became another vehicle to stave off Enlightenment in Eastern Europe.  To make matters worse for Green, post Holocaust Hasidism was highly insular, though this stemmed from a need to regroup and regrow.  Green calls for a return to a “pure” Hasidic thought. 

The challenge he presents is both real and naive at the same time.  For many in the Modern Orthodox community, the study of hasidic thought is a means of infusing life with spirit, yet we, like Green, try to gloss over the realities of what Hasidism is about.  It is about the rebbe/tzaddiq, which is described hagiographically even in the early Baal Shem Tov stories.  It is about fighting modernity, for to stave off monotony, we need to constantly be finding spirit in Judaism and not outside.  Hasidism is not necessarily compatible with a secular lifestyle.  Its early thinking can’t be removed from the people, who were all halachically centered. 

Of course, at the same time, never judge a religion by the people who practice it.

When we don’t know what to choose

The NY Times magazine had an interesting and heartwrenching piece in this past weekend’s magazine.  In “What Broke my Father’s Heart, ” Judith Butler describes the deaths of her two parents and the challenges the family faced while her father was declining in his health.  In this piece, she describes the choices her mother made which prolonged her father’s life to a point of complete mental deterioration instead of allowing nature to take its course.  Her mother decided to have a pacemaker placed in her husband to prolong his life.  She then immediately felt regret and spent the next few years wishing she could turn it off.

The piece describes the family’s struggles with the current medical establishment regarding the lack of discussion of advanced planning as well as what they perceived to be unnecessary medical procedures.  The story concludes with the author’s mother deciding against anything aggressive that might incapacitate, thus allowing her to die on her own time in complete control. 

I will leave aside the clear political leanings of the article.  In terms of the human element, I always find that either people are ill-informed and don’t know what to ask or that people are too timid to ask questions.  At the same time, there are drs. who sometimes forget that healing isn’t always about making physically better.  Drs also run into problems when it comes to advising because there is a fine line between allowing for patient autonomy and also providing them with legitimate, expert advice. 

Read the piece and consider the challenges of dealing with our elderly.  This goes back to the piece I discussed a few weeks ago about the dual thinking about death and dying.

Responsiblity above all else

Without placing blame on any particular party in the Gulf oil spill, R. Shmuly Yanklowitz discusses the issue of collective responsibility from a Jewish perspective.  It is refreshing to get a perspective on a major current event without having to resort to finger pointing.  The finger pointing is potentially important from other perspectives, but when it comes to lessons learned, perhaps better we observe what else we can garner from a tragic situation. 

In this piece he discusses human fallacy, arguing from the Shulchan Aruch that while error is natural for human beings, blaming something on an accident doesn’t always remove personal responsibility.  We should learn from the oil spill that we need to be more wary of what we do in our lives and minimize potential damage and accident.  Our goal in life is to both do good and avoid harm.

How generations evolve

The following piece Involuntary Transit Through Evolving Consciousness by Jonathan Schorsch spoke to me about the ideas of parenting in relationship to each person’s place in the world.  Here are some thoughts as I posted at The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: notes on Jewish theology and spirituality

I found much truth in Schorsch’s self portrait. We all look for our own voice in this world, breaking the previous generations voice. Yet we forget that we are mere mortals who cannot know all. Eventually, the next generation begins to see that we are not the be all and end all of all discussion, thus they also explore. The challenge is the obvious need to let go.

In terms of the image of Terach and Abraham, I think the real fear, not mentioned, is that eventually the Abraham goes out on his own, and all that is left of the Terach is VaYamat Terach B’Haran, that Terach dies without fulfilling his ultimate goal. In a sense, the final element of the metaphor might be the seeming irrelevance of the previous generation. Yet, we know that the ideal is to look to the previous generation for wisdom in old age. Perhaps, this is part of why the one idol was not destroyed. We can destroy the idols of the previous generation, but something must remain as a connection.