One of the odd things about the scheduling strangeness in the triennial cycle I wrote of last week is a first for Shlomo’s Drash. For the next couple of weeks, the Torah Reading at my synagogue occurs before I write the Drash for that portion. Thus there are Torah discussion days before I sit down to the keyboard, and so others have given me a lot of ideas. Yet where I take it is of course my own invention.
Last week the discussion was based on a rather small passage in Torah:
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying 2. Command the people of Israel, that they take out of the camp every leper, and every one who has a bodily discharge, and whoever is defiled by the dead 3. Both male and female shall you take out, outside the camp shall you take them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst of which I dwell. 4. And the people of Israel did so, and took them out outside the camp; as the Lord spoke to Moses, so did the people of Israel.
In my public health role, I understand the literal text. Set up a quarantine of those temporarily affected by something that makes them impure. Those with the skin disease Tzaarat, those who have a sexually transmitted disease, and those who have been handling corpses do run a high risk of transmission of disease to others. All of these are spelled out in detail in the book of Leviticus between Chapter 12 to 15.
The question most people in the discussion were answering was: what kind of God would shun from his presence those in most need of help of some kind? But to ask that question begs another I have mentioned before: what kind of God promises 600,000 men of military age that they will live in a land of milk and honey then proceeds to take the entire book of Numbers killing off all of them, including their leader Moses, so that only two of their number enter? Something else must be going on here.
God did not promise an individual, but a people. In that sense, God kept his promise. It is a collective, B’nei Yisrael, that God promised, not a set of individuals. One can represent that collective not just as a group of people but a psyche as well. The book of numbers is a story which gives us a roadmap of personal transformation from a slave state to a free one. If that is the case, what does this passage have to do with personal transformation?
We need to look at the context of Naso. The story here is the setting up of the first God encounter after Sinai. The people make the Mishkan operational with a series of laws, actions, commitments and sacrifices. At the end of this series of offerings, we read:
89. And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with him, then he heard the voice of one speaking to him from the covering that was upon the ark of Testimony, from between the two cherubim; and he spoke to him.
Moses would hear God’s voice from above the ark, between the two figures known as. This is the Goal therefore of Naso, to set up the divine encounter. We have no more sacrifices since the destruction of the temple. Instead we have prayer. Prayer opens that connection between man and God. As Abraham Joshua Heschel noted many people do not understand prayer, thinking it’s only about asking God for things. It’s more than that; it’s making a personal connection between us and the divine. “Prayer does not save us”, Heschel said, “but makes us worthy of saving.” There are two parts to that connection, like in any conversation. There is a set of rituals and texts to read to accomplish this, the keva. It is the Kavvanah, the intention and effort put into prayer which is the metaphorical reason for the taking all these taamei, or unclean people out of the camp.
For many prayers such as the Amidah, a deep sense of concentration is needed. The Talmud wants intense concentration, so much so that
Even if a king greets him [while praying] he should not answer him: even if a snake is wound round his heel he should not break off. [Ber 30b]
When one meditates or prays there are those odd thought which don’t belong there. It might be “my leg itches” or “what’s for lunch.” Often one finds the mind wandering. A snake is a small distraction compared to those inner, alien thoughts. Trying to make them go away makes the situation worse.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism believed that the alien thoughts contained at their core a holy element, a divine spark. During prayer any alien thought we have is not to be shunned, but healed and cleaned of the crud that made it fall from heaven in the first place. The Baal Shem Tov speaks of healing the thought, not shunning it. Oddly enough to shun it only makes it stronger, and more of a distraction. The taamei in the congregation are the alien thoughts to the whole of Israel. Their afflictions will be of the self, not of the group.
I remember a few years ago, my mom was concerned about how often her thoughts wandered in prayer. At the time I explained to her alien thoughts. I pointed out noticing she was wandering in her thoughts was a step in the right direction. Many people are so routed in their alien thoughts the genuine thoughts are lost. Even sadder is they are not even aware of it. There is a Hasidic story about the Seer of Lublin who had a man ask him how to get rid of alien thoughts. The man then enumerated his alien thoughts one by one in a large list. The Seer replied, “Well they are not so alien, they seem quite at home there.” Until we identify the alien thoughts as alien we cannot go to the next step of healing them.
I’m not immune to alien thoughts; I have then all the time. Either in prayer or meditation they are often all I get. Sometimes I’m not even sure what is divine connection and what isn’t. There was this time at a Jewish retreat that we did a meditative exercise. Everyone discussing their experience afterwards said things like “I saw the unity of the universe” I was too embarrassed to share. While everyone else was getting profound messeages and experiences. I got Loony Tunes. Bugs Bunny was hitting Elmer Fudd with a wooden mallet as an answer to Elmer’s question to know the secret to all knowledge. I’ve wondered about that vision. Was it an alien thought or was it an actual connection like we were supposed to have in the exercise? How do we tell the difference? The Baal Tem Tov of course gave me the best answer. There is always a kernel of holiness to all these thoughts. Your job is the quickly see that kernel and then the thought will become holy.
I have tried to apply this to prayer, and I’ll admit I need a lot practice to elevate an alien thought. Yet in every attempt I do get better at it. Things that crossed my mind a year ago now transform into butterflies of light and float away as soon as they enter my mind. Yet thoughts still cross my mind, and interrupt my prayers like lead balloons. It takes a lot of practice, something I’ve yet to accomplish. Indeed I think everyone has this problem whether they admit it or not. Many have it when they talk to humans, too busy thinking about other thing to list to the person they are conversing with. Of course this is rude. How much more so to God?