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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Count your [morning] blessings; Sotah 60b

     Those of you who know me, know that I am not a morning person. But from what I see in our Jewish morning rituals it might be that there are many others out there that are not fond of a morning wake up process either. Behold, our sages, with their wisdom, installed special morning prayers, which should help us wake up, move gradually from the sleep state to the wake state, and slowly gain awareness of our bodies, mind and spirit. I specifically refer to Birkot HaShachar, the morning/dawn blessing.[1]

     The Gemarah in Sotah 60b lists blessings that invite the worshippers to focus on the daily gifts that God restored for them. They move us through the natural process of waking up, like opening the eyes, standing up, getting dressed, etc.

Here are the blessings. I left out a number of them from this ritual (I wonder if you, the reader, can guess why):

When one awakens, he recites: 
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. 
You formed it within me, You breathed it into me, 
and You guard it while it is within me. 
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I thank You, 
O Lord my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all worlds, Lord of all souls. Blessed are You, O Lord, who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

Upon hearing the sound of the rooster, one should recite: Blessed…Who gave the [sekhvi], the rooster (or heart) understanding to distinguish between day and night.

Upon opening his eyes, one should recite: Blessed…Who gives sight to the blind.

Upon sitting up straight, one should recite: Blessed…Who sets captives free. Upon dressing, one should recite: Blessed…Who clothes the naked, as they would sleep unclothed.

Upon standing up straight, one should recite: Blessed…Who raises those bowed down.

Upon descending from one’s bed to the ground, one should recite: Blessed…Who spreads the earth above the waters, in thanksgiving for the creation of solid ground upon which to walk.

Upon walking, one should recite: Blessed…Who makes firm the steps of man.

Upon putting on his shoes, one should recite: Blessed…Who has provided me with all I need, as shoes are a basic necessity.

Upon putting on his belt, one should recite: Blessed…Who girds Israel with strength.

Upon spreading a shawl upon his head, one should recite: Blessed…Who crowns Israel with glory.

What is special about these blessings, which I call a ritual?

     There is a Jewish belief that our sleeping state, symbolically, is a mini-death, טעמא דמותא, a crisis, which we need to overcome on a daily basis. We are to make a smooth transition from the nocturnal state of sleep, to the diurnal state of awakening. From an anthropological perspective, it would be proper to apply Victor Turner’s assertion that rituals we perform help us make transitions in life. Thus, we have our morning blessings recitation, a ritual we perform daily to move on from this Mini-Death of being out of control during our sleep to the awakening and gaining back control. And with this I face few problems which I put forth with questions but no answers;

     1. If it is about waking up and prepare for the day, why don’t we do stretches and deep breathing while we recite these blessings? Some synagogues have the custom to stand [still] while reciting these blessing. Others have the custom to be seated. Either way, when standing or sitting, I think that it is taking away from the personal experiential meaning of these blessings. [I only experienced movement during these blessing at Jewish Renewal services].

     2. Do we actually take the proper time at the synagogue to gradually internalize the meaning of each step? Can we please slow down the pace with each blessing?

     3. Do these blessings set aside those individuals who are blind, deaf, or in a wheel chair? I ask myself over and over again how does it feel for those who cannot see, or hear, or are not able to walk? I wonder what subjective meaning they create for themselves. It is true that commentators did ask similar questions. For example, should one recite hearing the sound of the rooster even if one did not or could not hear the rooster crow, or should a blind person make the blessing of who gives sight to the blind? (The Rambam thinks one should only recite if the corresponding occurrence is relevant to him or her. The Ramban, on the other hand, argues that everyone should say all of the blessings).

     With these questions in mind, I want to stress that one should feel completely free to assign a non-literal meaning of the blessing. Perhaps, the rooster could be the human insight to discern between night and day, good and bad. Or blindness could be the moral or spiritual avoidance we show at times. Or, freedom will mean that we be free from all types of tempting restraints. And lastly, while we recite these Birkot Hashachar we may acknowledge our privilege to have all the things we need. Especially when we know that there are many families who cannot afford to buy appropriate clothing, and that it is our social duty to dress the naked.

     Let us make the mornings happy and productive. Let us count our blessings. Amen!

כי מתער אומר אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה אתה יצרתה בי אתה נפחתה בי ואתה משמרה בקרבי ואתה עתיד ליטלה ממני ולהחזירה בי לעתיד לבא כל זמן שהנשמה בקרבי מודה אני לפניך ה' אלהי ואלהי אבותי רבון כל העולמים אדון כל הנשמות ברוך אתה ה' המחזיר נשמות לפגרים מתים
כי שמע קול תרנגולא לימא ברוך אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה כי פתח עיניה לימא ברוך פוקח עורים כי תריץ ויתיב לימא ברוך מתיר אסורים כי לביש לימא ברוך מלביש ערומים כי זקיף לימא ברוך זוקף כפופים כי נחית לארעא לימא ברוך רוקע הארץ על המים כי מסגי לימא ברוך המכין מצעדי גבר כי סיים מסאניה לימא ברוך שעשה לי כל צרכי כי אסר המייניה לימא ברוך אוזר ישראל בגבורה כי פריס סודרא על רישיה לימא ברוך עוטר ישראל בתפארה

[1] These Blessing were once said at home immediately upon waking up (the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer), but later were integrated into the regular morning prayer service out of concern that they were not being said at home.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The toxic impact of Anger – BT Pesachim 66b

BT Eruvin 65b attributes the teaching of Rabbi Ilai:

A person’s character can be discerned by three things: koso (“his cup”), kiso (“his purse”), and ka’a’so (“his anger”). This refers to our behavior with drinking alcohol, with money, and with anger.

One of the most persistent emotion that we all experience is the feeling of anger. Occasionally we express anger without being aware of it and it shows in the way we talk, the words we use and even with certain body language that is different from the regular state of being relaxed.

But there are also those who express anger in violence. Anger that is expressed with a temper tantrum (yes, I have seen adults), hitting others, or it could be as simple as punching the wall.

I often ask myself whether it would be better to internalize anger and not express it in any way. Would it be better to smile all the time and seem like a nice person and not rage at everyone? I think that this would be unhealthy. Living with a mask is difficult. It takes a lot of energy and builds pressure. On the other hand, if we externally express anger, we equally damage ourselves and others. Articles in the Journal of Medicine and Life and Psychology Today make it clear that the feeling of anger stimulates the stress hormones, specifically corticosteroids and catecholamine, which leads to body metabolic modifications, vascular problems, and heart problems. And that “A strong emotion that is accompanied by arousal of the nervous system, anger produces effects throughout the body. But if you express it, you’re not necessarily better off”.

So, the dilemma remains.

In BT Pesachim 66b we read how the sages viewed anger and its consequences. The following section that is taught by Reish Lakish is related to his personal tragic story. He died as a result of anger.

Reish Lakish was first a robber or gladiator. After meeting with Yochanan he married Yochanan’s sister, became a student of Torah and then his study partner. They both worked well together. One day, they had an halachic discussion about the purity of knives and weapons. Yochanan alluded to Reish Lakish’s life as a bandit, in which a knowledge of weapons was a matter of habit. Shocked and insulted, Reish Lakish responded in anger. They refused to speak to one another or forgive one another. Yochanan died of a broken heart, and Reish Lakish died shortly thereafter from the pain of it all.

Here is the text:

Resh Lakish said: As to every man who becomes angry: if he is a Sage [wise man], his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him”.

Following is the example of Moses, who lost his wisdom due to anger, and forgot the laws that the priest Eleazar taught him; “And Moses became angry at the commanders of the army…” (Numbers 31:14). [And, in this portion of the week, Moses loses it again in the case of the Golden calf].

The example for lost prophecy is Elisha, the disciple of Elijah. He loses his prophetic ability because the anger he had for King Yehoram of Israel. “And Elisha said to the king of Israel, “What have you to do with me?!” (2 Kings 3:13), and it is written: “And now get me a musician.” As the musician played, the hand of Adonai came upon him [the spirit of prophecy] (2 Kings 3:14).

The Gemara continues:

“R. Mani b. Pattish said: Whoever becomes angry, even if greatness has been decreed for him by Heaven, is cast down”.

The Gemara is stressing that anger is not beneficial. It seems to be a universal feeling. Like what the Buddha taught: “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” Or like what Mark Twain used to say: “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

What are we to do with it? There is a lot to think about and there are many ways in which one can examine her/his feelings.

Next time we feel anger, ask - is there an appropriate / justifiable time to either expressing it or not?

Next time we feel anger, be mindful of the fact that what we might say we might regret forever.

Or, perhaps, discover the inner forces that trigger our anger. Would it not be wonderful if we could convert all these feeling to positive acceptance of life with lots of forgiving and strength?