Monday, September 29, 2008

Contradictory Emotions On Rosh Hashana

Update 10-12-08: For a slightly different perspective on the same question--yet one that I think can be nicely synthesized with my approach--see here.

I can take very little credit for the content of the following essay. I wrote it last year as part of the midterm of an excellent class entitled "Intellect and Emotion In Jewish Thought," taught by R' J. J. Schachter. All the sources mentioned were taught in class--the only original aspect of the essay is the ending, in which I discuss my personal 'religion in essence'--and even that idea was originated by an amazing friend, though I expanded on it and related it to the sources. Final disclaimer: I apologize for the fact that it isn't all that well-written--given that I wrote it under a time pressure during the midterm, it isn't as lucid as I would otherwise have liked it to be. Nevertheless, I think it presents some interesting and relevant ideas for the chag, so I hope you are able to glean something from it.

Rosh Hashana presents an interesting dilemma. The gemara (Archin 10b) explains why we don’t say hallel on Rosh Hashana: how could we sing shira when the books of life and death are open before Hashem? This indicates an important component of fear on Rosh Hashana. Yet the gemara Yerushalmi explains that we are different than other nations because instead of wearing black at the time of judgment, we wear white and eat and drink and rejoice, confident that Hashem will judge us kindly. These two sentiments seem contradictory.

From the perspective of religion in manifestation (halakhic practice), a choice between the two must be made: may we fast on Rosh Hashanah or not? Do we say ‘vehasianu’ in tefillah or not? Does an avel mourn or not? However, from the perspective of religion in essence (religious thought/emotion), it is not necessary to choose one or the other—rather, we can have a synthesis of both.

The Rambam in Hilchos Chanukah writes that we don’t say hallel because there is no simcha yeteirah on Rosh Hashana. Yet the word “yeteirah” indicates that there is an aspect of simcha in addition to the yirah of Rosh Hashana. The Sefer Hachinuch writes that Rosh Hashana is a gift, a day on which we can achieve forgiveness, and so we should be happy. Yet, it is also appropriate to have extra yirah because of the day’s serious nature.

So the question is: how do we balance these two seemingly contradictory emotions? The Taz offers one solution: our anxiety motivates introspection, which motivates teshuva, which motivates a confidence that we will be judged favorably. However, to me this solution doesn’t seem satisfactory, because according to this opinion the anxiety comes before the confidence, and then as a result of preparation the anxiety is dispelled. So it would seem that by the time Rosh Hashana itself arrives only confidence is present, since the appropriate preparation has occurred.

Instead, I seek a way to merge the two emotions at once. My personal religion in essence relates to the opinions of R’ Neventzal and Rabbeinu Yonah. R’ Neventzal says that on an individual level we are nervous about being judged, but on a communal level we are confident that Hashem will be merciful. Rabbeinu Yonah explains the phrase in Tehillim (2:11) “v’gilu b’ra’ada” (rejoice with trembling). How can you be joyous while trembling? In relation to Hashem, he claims, you can. Though these two emotions cannot coincide toward a single man, toward God their synthesis is natural. When we recognize who God is, His greatness, and how small we are in comparison, we can appreciate the relationship that we have with him and rejoice in the knowledge that we can perform His mitzvot. As we tremble in fear, we are joyful in recognition of God.

My personal religion in essence on Rosh Hashana is similar to this idea. Yes, I am afraid of being judged, in awe of God’s greatness—yet, I am joyful in the mere knowledge that God exists, that there is someone to judge. Imagine life in a world without God, without a Creator who cares enough about His children to judge them. It would be a horrible existence, isolated and purposeless. The fact that I am being judged makes me joyful at the same time that it makes me fearful. Like Rav Neventzal explains, on an individual level I am afraid of the judgment that I may receive, but in a greater sense I am confident in the knowledge that there is a Creator who takes care of the world. Like Rabbeinu Yonah, I tremble in awe and fear of God, yet rejoice in the fact that He exists and desires a relationship with me. The two emotions are not contradictory at all, but rather go hand in hand. I fear because I am being judged, but I also rejoice because I am being judged.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Standing Still

Somehow, the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana are never enough time to prepare, never enough time to learn, to introspect, to create the right mindset for Yom Hadin. And suddenly, it is almost erev Rosh Hashana, and that fear steals over my heart, the fear that is mixed with awe, a sense of my own smallness in relation to the Infinity I will be addressing in just a few short hours.

A few days ago, I was davening shachris alone in my apartment as usual, feeling that familiar sense of subtle guilt because my kevana is nowhere near the level I would hope for, because I am running late for class and that knowledge refuses to evaporate even though I am talking to the Creator of the Universe, because I have a thousand worries and a hundred things to do.

And then suddenly I became aware of something: a swaying motion, my body moving slowly back and forth in a trance-like rhythm. My lips move soundlessly and my body swings slightly and I wonder: what am I doing? So I stop.

A blank space opens up and silence reigns for a moment.

I look into my siddur and pick up my tefillah from where I left off—but I hold my body still. And suddenly there is more space—space for the words to have meaning, space for my brain to breathe and comprehend, space for more emotion to seep through.

I realize: the shuckeling was only impeding my tefillos. The movement allowed me to believe that I was concentrating, that it, in and of itself, proved that I was attentive to my prayers, while in reality it merely provided a distraction, something for my body to do so that my brain could wander where it shouldn’t.

When I hold my body still there is nothing for my mind to do but focus on the words I am saying, nothing for my heart to do but listen.

This Rosh Hashana I will attempt a new feat. While my emotions soar and plummet, while my intellect ascends to the heights of truth, while my spirit grows and my being shrinks—my body will be standing still.

Monday, September 22, 2008

From an Airplane

The pictures cannot even begin to do it justice.

What makes a thing beautiful is the unknown.

A streaked, pastel, candy-floss morning sky intersects and blends into a navy-violet carpet of clouds, lit from below with the deep orange glow of sunrise.

Why is this sight so breathtaking? Because it symbolizes the vast, the mysterious, that which is beyond our measure and our capacity. The grandeur of the natural world, that it is so much beyond us, is its beauty. Even the worldliest scientist feels its wonder.

A beautiful flower, a beautiful person—the principle is the same. Something unreachable, unknowable, serene, apart. A person who is not these things may be “hot” or even “gorgeous,” but she is not beautiful. There is something ultimately internal about beauty, something essential, relating to essence.

No matter how long you stare at the beautiful, it never grows stale or boring. There is much truth in Keats’ oft-quoted line, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” The joy of beholding beauty is renewed each second, just as God renews and sustains the world.

Beauty is bestowed by God—a gift, a testament to His greatness and kindness. As Rambam asserts, we can reach love of God through contemplation of the natural world, because it is such a testament.

How could one not feel love toward the provider of such exquisite, temporal fulfillment?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Does God Love You?

In a recent conversation on the topic of emotional connection to God, a friend raised the idea of focusing on God’s love as a means to achieving reciprocal emotion. In other words, by reminding yourself that God loves you and by focusing on all the good things He has given you as a result of His love, you can internalize the fact that He loves you and, as the theory goes, you will then eventually love Him back.

My friend also mentioned a Rosh Yeshiva whose motto is “Do you know Hashem loves you?” and who will ask children, “Who loves you the most in the world?” If a child answers, “My parents,” he will respond, “No, Hashem loves you even more!”

This idea does not sit well with me. To my ears it sounds far more like the Christian mantra “Jesus loves you” than like an authentically Jewish approach.

My question is: does God really ‘love’ us?

Obviously, we believe that God created the world and the Torah for our benefit—clearly it could not be for His own, since He has no needs. However, is this concept of a personal, emotional love a part of our weltanschauung? Certainly we are obligated to love God, but does He love us?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Feeling Thankful?

Rosh Chodesh Elul not only ushers in a period of intense introspection, but also offers two chances to say Hallel, a tefillah of thanksgiving and praise. In conjunction with these themes I’ve been thinking about the emotion of thankfulness.

I know that I am as blessed as any human being could hope to be. I have a wonderful family and amazing friends. All of my material needs are consistently met and exceeded. I am in good health. I have been given gifts and talents to utilize in this world, as well as the opportunity to foster them. Very few people can count themselves more fortunate than I.

Yet, as I think about these blessings, I became conscious of how rarely I actually feel the emotion of thankfulness. Intellectually, I am constantly reminded of the fact that I should be thankful. I know that God has given me far more than I deserve, and I make sure to tell myself so at regular intervals. However, this is not the same as feeling thankful to God.

I realized that the only times that I am able to feel an overwhelming thankfulness to God are when I either acquire a new gift or nearly lose one that I have.

In the past, when I have been blessed with something that I had heretofore lacked, I have felt—combined with the happiness of the new blessing—a consuming thankfulness. It is hard to describe what it feels like; the emotion is euphoric and transcendent, and humbling to an extreme. Yet, almost inevitably, over time the emotion dulls and fades, as the new gift is assimilated into my frame of being.

Confronting the possibility of losing something also engenders in me an emotion of thankfulness. When a gift teeters in the balance, or seems to for a time, fear and prayer are my immediate reactions. If the gift is spared, my relief mingles with thankfulness to God, creating an emotional state that is generally even more intense than my thankfulness for a new blessing.

However, I have been unable to manufacture any passable facsimile of this emotion in my day-to-day life. I can remind myself that I should, and must, be thankful, but this is an intellectual knowledge, not an emotional one.

When a person does something for me it is easier to feel thankful. I am able to relate to a fellow human being, to visualize myself as the other and recognize the effort that the person has put in, with the knowledge that what the person has done for me was not required. I can imagine what it would be like to be the giver; I know that the gift I was given was inconvenient, or time-consuming, or difficult to give.

With God, it is not so. I cannot put myself in His position. I cannot imagine any “effort” on His part. There is a total disconnect between the state of the giver and the state of the receiver, making it far more difficult to create an emotion of thankfulness.

It is also easier to express gratitude to human beings. When a person goes out of his/her way to do something for you, even just a verbal expression of thanks can have a profound effect on both the giver and the receiver. Often, some sort of reciprocal act also communicates one’s appreciation. The very process of acting allows the receiver to internalize his gratitude.

With God, however, it is different. Yes, in the time of the BHMK there were (and will be, according to many opinions) korbanot, particularly the korban Todah, an active manifestation of thanks. And nowadays there are the hoda’ah sections of tefillah, verbal declarations of thanks for our blessings and the miracles that God performs for us daily. But although saying these prayers can sometimes have a minimal positive effect on my emotional state, it rarely creates the powerful emotion that I seek.

When dealing with God, my thanks can receive no tangible reception; I can see no effect of my words, and I know that my expression of gratitude cannot benefit the subject of it. In this case, the only entity who truly benefits is myself. This makes the thanks I utter echo endlessly in my own ears, yet still it rings hollow.

I do not know the solution to my problem. I do not know how to inspire or create an emotion of thankfulness to permeate my everyday life. I know only that I should feel thankful, that I want to feel thankful, and that, in the core of my being, I am thankful. I only hope that I can find a way to tap into some hidden reserve of emotion that will allow me to experience thankfulness in a way that is conscious and true.