Avraham ben Yaakov
UNDER THE TABLE
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Jewish Pathways of Spiritual Growth

 

Putting on the Shirts

The Limits of Meditation * Torah Study * What to Study * When to Study * How to Study *”You can wear a shirt and still be a Turkey!”

Then the Wise Man gave a sign, and they threw them shirts. The Wise Man-Turkey said to the king's son, “Do you think a turkey can't wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey.” The two of them put on shirts.

The Turkey-Prince might have been quite content to while away the time chatting endlessly with his new friend. However the Wise Man did not only want to get to know the Prince, he wanted to elevate him. Conversation alone was not going to be enough. When the time was ripe, the Wise Man had to take the initiative and get the Prince to act. He had to get him to put his shirt on. “The Wise Man gave a sign, and they threw them shirts.”

The Limits of Meditation

Hisbodidus is made up of conversations – between the Prince and Wise Man within ourselves, or between ourselves and God. Hisbodidus can be a very powerful practice, leading to profound self-understanding, and at times an amazing awareness of God's intimate closeness. But for a lasting connection with God, hisbodidus by itself is not enough.

Certain schools of meditation hold that complete self-realization and intimacy with God can come through meditation alone. One of the greatest dangers of such approaches is that they can easily leave those who follow them locked within their own subjectivity. The altered states of mind that meditation can produce are sometimes very impressive – so much so that those experiencing them for the first time may be quite convinced they have found the ultimate truth of existence. Having had a taste of a higher state of consciousness, people sometimes spend years trying to recapture it. But the mere fact that certain meditational states may be very entrancing does not mean that those who have experienced them are genuinely close to God. Exclusive attention to a single technique can lead people to ignore major problems in their lives and personalities that may, in fact, be keeping them from God.

The Torah teaches that our purpose in this world is to “know this day and take to your heart that HaShem is the only God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Deuteronomy 4:39). “Know this day” implies knowing God not only during moments of intimacy in meditation, but through all the different phases of the entire day. “Take to your heart” means that it is not enough to have isolated religious experiences from time to time: we must draw our knowledge of God into our very hearts, so that all of our activities are suffused with a yearning for connection with God.

Much of the work of hisbodidus is concerned with making the connection between the head and the heart. We may have noble ideals about the way we would like to be, but they will always remain theoretical – in the head, as it were – until we work to marshal the motive forces of the heart, the seat of the will, in order to realize them. This work is vital, but even so, it is still only a preparation for the final stage, which is to put our ideals into practice through action.

The Hebrew word for the knowledge of God is da'at. Da'at means far more than mere intellectual knowledge. Not only does da'at include the profound states of insight and connection that can be attained through prayer and meditation. It has a still broader reference. To “know this day...”means to be aware of and connected with God in every fiber of our being and in all of our activities, down to the most mundane.

The only way to attain this connection is through carrying out the mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah, in practice. We have seen that the mitzvot apply to every sphere of human activity, and on every level of behavior – thought, emotion, speech and action. Each mitzvah is a detailed pathway of practical action relating to a particular facet of life, and leading to its own particular form of connection with God. The word mitzvah is thus related to the Hebrew root tzavat, which means “connect.” (See above pp. 28-32.)

The mitzvot are the royal “clothes” of the “Prince,” the Godly Soul. Thoughts, feelings, words and actions of any kind are “clothes” through which the personality is expressed and actualized in different ways. The mitzvot are detailed patterns of divinely prescribed thoughts, words, feelings and actions, oriented toward God and connecting us with Him. It is through carrying out the mitzvot – “putting on” these royal “clothes”– that the “Prince,” the Godly Soul, becomes revealed in this world, and our potential spirituality becomes actualized.

Torah Study

“The greatness of Torah study is that it brings one to practical action.”

Kidushin 40b

“The Wise Man gave a sign, and they put down shirts.” The very first mitzvah a young boy is introduced to is that of Tzitzit – wearing the four-cornered, fringed garment that covers the upper part of the body. Tzitzit is also the first mitzvah of the day for every Jewish male: immediately after getting up in the morning, one puts on the Tallit Katan, the small, fringed garment worn throughout the day. The “shirts” in our story suggest this upper garment: when the Wise Man wanted to get the Prince to dress himself, this was where he began.

The purpose of the Tzitzit (the fringes) is that we should “look at them, and remember all the mitzvot of HaShem” (Numbers 15:39). The numerical value of the Hebrew letters of the word TziTziT is six hundred, which together with the eight threads and five knots of the Tzitzit makes a total of six hundred and thirteen. This corresponds to the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot of the Torah. The Tzitzit thus alludes to the entire Torah, which we are to “look at and remember” constantly, studying it whenever possible, and inscribing the knowledge of the Torah in our memories and our very hearts.

“Putting on the shirts” can therefore be interpreted as an allusion to studying the Torah, which is as important as all the mitzvot of the Torah put together (Pe'ah 1:1). Indeed, Torah study is the key to fulfillment of all the other mitzvot, since it is impossible to practice them unless you know exactly what they are.

Only in conjunction with Torah study is it possible to come to a closer connection with God through hisbodidus. Some people believe that meditation alone can lead to spiritual illumination. They put forth their questions and then listen to their own inner voices, or to what they may think of as spirits channeling information from somewhere outside of themselves. But without objective criteria to evaluate the messages they hear, how can they know if they are truthful and not merely what a part of them wants to hear? Those who profess to channel spirits may simply be projecting the outpourings of their own unconscious onto an external source. People have used meditative “insight”to justify the most wanton acts of selfishness and destruction.

Exclusive reliance on subjective intuition can only lead to self-deception. The Torah teaches us that the creation of the universe was planned in such a way as to place us in a situation of challenge, so that we can then exercise the highest faculty we have: free will. On every level, goodness and truth are therefore mixed up with evil and falsehood, often in the most subtle ways. Our task is to sift and search until we uncover the good – earning goodness through our own work and efforts.

Just as good and evil are mixed up in the outer world, so they are in the inner world of the mind and soul. We have all kinds of thoughts, ideas, hopes, wishes, dreams, desires, impulses, intentions, instincts, etc. Some of them are good – they can lead us closer to God – while others are bad, pulling us further away. Not only do the Princely parts of the soul dwell side by side with the Turkey in us, but to make the challenge even greater, the Turkey masquerades as the Prince, blunting our sensitivity to what is truly good and desirable and what is not.

Without objective criteria for distinguishing between fantasy and truth, we have no protection against the weaknesses of our own judgment. The purpose of hisbodidus is to find the Prince and Princess in ourselves – to sift out and develop the good, while cleansing ourselves of our bad, Turkey aspects. But the Turkey has its own ideas about what is good and desirable. Without the objective guidance of the Torah it is impossible to escape from our own subjectivity and find the truth.

The primary purpose of Torah study is not to develop our intellectual acumen or acquire knowledge for its own sake, but to connect with God. Every word of the Torah is a revelation of the will of God. The goal is to fill our minds and hearts with God's teaching in order to fulfill it and do it. The purpose of study is to bring us to practical action. It is therefore most important to learn Torah only from works by Rabbis genuinely devoted to the fulfillment of Torah, and not from outside sources.

The Torah is unlike any worldly body of knowledge which we can verify through accepted canons of scientific validation. The Torah is a revelation from beyond this world, and connects us with levels of reality which cannot be experienced and explored directly with our five material senses. The Torah has its own logic (such as the Thirteen Hermeneutical Rules of Rabbi Yishmael, etc.) and has to be taken on trust.

We thus speak of kabbalat ha-Torahreceiving the Torah. When someone gives you a gift, you receive what is given without trying to dictate what they should give you. The only way to receive the Torah is through Emunah, faith in God, and Emunat Chachamim, faith in the saints and sages of all the generations, who labored in the Torah in holiness and purity day and night and transmitted it to us.

What to Study

Halachah: “The Academy of Eliahu taught: Everyone who studies halachot every day is assured he will be in the World to Come” (Megilah 28b). The first priority in Torah study should be practical Halachah, the detailed laws of the mitzvot applicable in everyday life – Tzitzit and Tefilin, blessings and prayers, Shabbat and festivals, Kashrut, relations with other people, purity of speech, charity, loving kindness, honesty in business, family purity, etc. Even if you have no time to study anything else, you should make a point to study Halachah every day. On a day when you are very pressed, still study at least one practical Halachah.

Not only is it vital to know the details of the mitzvot in order to fulfill them properly. Study of Halachah is also one of the main elements in separating the Prince from the Turkey. “When a person transgresses, good and evil are mixed up. A legal decision is a clear separation between the permitted and the forbidden, the clean and the unclean. When you study religious law, good is once again separated from evil and the sin is rectified” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #29).

A wide variety of clear and easily understandable halachic texts is available in English covering all the mitzvot of everyday life. Make a list of the main areas you should be familiar with and work through the relevant texts one after the other until you have covered them all. Start with simpler works and go through them steadily, one by one. When you have been through them all, go through them again. When you are fully familiar with them, move on to more comprehensive works. Make daily halachic study a lifelong practice.

The Halachah consists of many fine details, and you may feel you cannot remember much of what you study. Don't be discouraged. By merely reading the words aloud, you have fulfilled the mitzvah of studying Torah, even if you later forget what you have learned. (See Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom pp. 126ff.) In fact you probably absorbed more than you are aware of. The more you review what you have studied, the more you will remember.

Mussar: Mussar is Torah literature on the theme of spiritual growth. The classic Mussar texts include the Mesilat Yesharim (“The Path of the Just”), the Orchot Tzaddikim (“Pathways of the Righteous”), the Chovot HaLevavot (“Duties of the Heart”), etc. Recent works, such as Strive for Truth by R. Eliahu Dessler, and Gateway to Happiness by R. Zelig Pliskin, present traditional Mussar teachings in a more contemporary form. The field of Mussar also includes the classic texts of Chassidism, such as the Tanya, Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom, the Aleph-Bet Book, Likutey Moharan and Advice, etc.

The Turkey is powerfully entrenched in all of us, and “someone in fetters cannot release himself from prison by himself” (Berachot 5b). The only way to free ourselves is with Torah, which is the spice created by God for the specific purpose of tempering the evil inclination (Bava Batra 16b). Most of us have so many worldly involvements that it is all too easy to get distracted from the real purpose for which we were brought into this world – to get to know and serve God. Regular study of Mussar can help to keep this purpose uppermost in your mind and inspire you to follow the Torah path with all your energy. Find the Mussar works that speak to you most directly in order to get clear guidance on how to advance along the Torah pathway of spiritual growth.

Chumash: The Five Books of Moses are the heart of the Torah. Every week you should go through the Torah portion that will be read in the synagogue on Shabbat. If you know Hebrew, you should aim to read the entire portion twice, preferably with the Aramaic Targum and the commentary of Rashi. If you are learning Hebrew, try to study at least part of the weekly portion in the original, and in any event read through the English translation. Familiarity with the text of the Five Books of Moses is the best foundation for all Torah study.

Other Studies: Everyone should aim to acquire a basic understanding of the main principles of faith and the Torah way of life, as explained in the Derech HaShem (“The Way of God”) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and other texts.

It is possible to be a pious Jew without being a scholar (see Zohar I:59b and Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #76), but deep perception can only be attained with Talmudic scholarship. Broad knowledge of NaCh (Prophets and other Biblical writings) and Mishnah is the best foundation for Talmud study. You may look at the many volumes you would like to cover – the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, Shulchan Aruch, Midrashim, the Zohar and the Kabbalah of the ARI – and wonder how you will ever get through them. At the very least, pray about it regularly and tell God you would like to study them all. Follow the example of the Wise Man and make a start with small, easy steps. Even if you go through only a few lines every day without fail, your skills will increase with time, and within a few years you will be able to cover far more ground than you ever thought possible.

When to Study

The most important thing is to fix regular times for Torah study. Rebbe Nachman points out that the Hebrew word for “fixing”– keva – also has the connotation of stealing (as in Proverbs 22:23). One has to steal time from one's other activities in order to make time for Torah study! Make sure to set regular study sessions, whether you study alone, with a study-partner, or in classes.

In order to fulfill the prescription to “meditate in the Torah day and night,” (Joshua 1:8) you should fix at least one study session during the day and one at night – even if you can devote no more than a few minutes. If possible, try to schedule at least one of your daily sessions at a time when you are fresh and alert, for example in the early morning. If you are unable to allocate much time for study during the week, schedule longer study periods on Shabbat. When circumstances arise that cause you to miss one of your regular sessions, still try to take your study text off the shelf, open it and read a phrase or two, then close and kiss the book and return it to the shelf.

Every word of Torah study is a mitzvah: utilize a few spare moments to open a book and learn even a short passage. Make it a habit to carry a small book with you wherever you go. Choose something you enjoy studying. In this way you will be able to put to good use even the minutes you spend waiting for buses, trains, appointments, etc.

How to Study

It is best to hold your regular sessions in a Beit Midrash if possible – “whoever learns in a synagogue or study hall will not forget quickly” (Yerushalmi Berachot 5). Alternatively, study anywhere that you find comfortable and where you will not be disturbed. (It goes without saying that it is forbidden to think Torah thoughts in the bathroom, etc., let alone bring Torah literature to such a place.)

Treat your study sessions with the utmost respect. Do not allow anything to interrupt you except a real emergency. When you learn, you are studying the words of God and His sages: how do you feel when you are in the middle of an important discussion and someone interrupts you for something trivial? Use your intelligence to avoid potential interruptions where possible. Relieve yourself, have a drink or snack, etc., before you start studying.

A private undertaking to try not to talk about anything except Torah for the duration of your session is beneficial to concentration. Before you begin learning, take some moments to sit, relax, breathe deeply and clear your mind. Offer a few words of prayer to connect yourself to God through your study, and ask for success. (Many Siddurim include the special prayer to be said on entering the study hall.) Spend a moment or two reflecting on what you are about to study. Remind yourself why you want to study, in order to motivate yourself. Bringing to mind what you already know about the subject can help you focus your mind. Where did you leave off last time? Are there specific questions you would like to have answered?

If you are in a class, try your best to focus on what the teacher is saying, and reserve your questions until the teacher has had a chance to explain the material. If you are studying with a partner, let one of your goals be that your partner should get as much as possible out of the session. Explaining a point clearly to a partner or student is one of the best ways of getting it straight in your own mind.

If you are studying by yourself, read the words of your study text out loud, for “they are life to those who pronounce them aloud, and healing to all their flesh” (Proverbs 4:22 and Eruvin 54a). Saying the words out loud helps you to focus your mind and brings them into your soul. If you are studying in Hebrew, even if you understand the language, it is still very beneficial to translate into your native tongue as you go along.

Where the Halachah, Mishnah or Gemara discusses a particular case, try to envisage the case in concrete terms. For example, if you are studying the laws of damages in Bava Kama, try to visualize the hoof of the ox, the hole in the ground, the camel munching someone else's produce, the fire spreading into someone else's field, etc. The same applies whether you are studying the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, purity of speech or any other area of Torah. Can you think of situations in your own experience that parallel the instance under discussion? After reading the text inside, look away from the text and try to formulate the concept or go back over the argument in your own words out loud.

When you come upon a passage that you find incomprehensible, if you simply read it over several times the meaning will often become clearer. If not, try to pinpoint your main problems in order to determine what you need to investigate further. If you find it impossible to understand, simply leave this passage aside and go forward. Often, something you learn later will throw light on what you could not understand earlier. In the long run, you will make more progress by covering a lot of ground, even without going into depth, than you will if you try to go into every single detail over a narrow area.

If you find your attention wandering during your study session, try to give yourself new energy through deep breathing. At times it may help you to get up and walk around a bit, or to close your eyes and relax for a minute or two. From time to time take a short break to clear your mind, refocus, repeat your prayer for success and connection with God, and so on.

As you study, ask yourself how the subject-matter applies to your life. What practical guidance can you derive? When you come across a teaching that is directly relevant, say it over to yourself a few times and make a prayer out of it using the words of the text in front of you. “God, help me to fulfill x, y and z.” This applies particularly to the study of Mussar and Chassidut, which are primarily concerned with personal spiritual growth. When you find a passage in Mussar or Chassidut that addresses your current growth issues directly, use some of your learning time to say it over and over again. This is how the words will penetrate your heart and consciousness until the spirit of the holy sage who taught them will come into you, lift you and bring you to true holiness.

When you come to the end of a study session, pause for a moment or two and cast your mind back over what you have been learning. Thank God for His Torah and the opportunity to learn it. (A prayer when leaving the study hall is also printed in many Siddurim.) Use spare moments after your session (e.g. on your way home from the Beit Midrash, or while eating, etc.) to review what you studied in the session.

The hardest thing about learning is getting to the session. Even when you feel tired and unable to concentrate, you can still learn a little. Take one small step – open the book. Just say over a few words, even if you don't understand them. This is also learning.

“You can wear a shirt and still be a Turkey!”

Contemplating the vast literature of Torah, you may ask, “Where do I come into all this?” The six hundred and thirteen commandments confront us with an awesome code of detailed regulations and prohibitions reaching into every corner of life: Torah commandments, enactments of the Rabbis, customs and stringencies with the force of law, opinions and counter-opinions... all contained in thousands upon thousands of pages laden with dense commentaries and supercommentaries...

“Is this the way to find myself, or am I being asked to give up my individuality, my spontaneity and personal creativity and take on a heavy burden that will crush any hopes of ever enjoying life?”

It may be easy enough to offer answers, and explain how the mitzvot provide the clothes that enable the inner Prince and Princess to come forth in their true radiance and beauty. (See above pp. 28-32.) God created the souls. The Torah is His infinite wisdom. The mitzvot that make up the Torah are tailored to all the souls that have ever been and ever will be. Each soul is the unique child of God. In a royal court, the beautiful costumes of each of the royal children are individually styled and tailored. So too, for each one of us, the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot that are the garments of the Godly Soul have their own unique meaning and significance.

“Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia says: The Holy One, blessed-be-He, wished to confer merit upon Israel and He therefore gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance” (Maccot 23b). The endless treasury of Torah includes opportunities for the development of every level of aptitude and ability, joyously and creatively, for the glory of God – whether in the pursuit of spirituality, cultivation of the intellect, emotional growth, the development of skills, interpersonal relationships, domestic and family life, social and communal activity, agriculture, manufacturing, engineering, business, the professions, administration, scientific research, arts, crafts, music, literature, care of the sick, elderly, handicapped or underprivileged, travel, sports, entertainment and anything else that comes into the realm of the permissible.

Even fulfillment of the regular daily and periodic mitzvot is not supposed to resemble a performance of the longest-running play. Each day and each moment is new: it never has been and never will be. Let today's Sh'ma be different from any other. The Divine sparks in this fruit will come into your thoughts, words and deeds in an entirely original way, the like of which will never be again: put unique energy into the blessing you make over it. Next Shabbat will have a spirit quite different from that of last Shabbat. A young boy's Seder night could never be the same as his grandfather's...

Answers like these may be good for Princes and Princesses, but what about Turkeys? For the Turkey, submission to the mitzvot may certainly entail a surrender of individuality – if that means eating anything one wants to eat in whichever restaurant takes one's fancy, lying in bed as long as one likes instead of having to get up to pray, spending all of one's money exactly the way one wishes, doing anything one wants over the weekend instead of having to think about Shabbat, and so on.

Even when we are basically willing to follow the mitzvot, we may still have many contrary feelings. The next step in deepening our observance may be staring us in the face, yet we may still feel unwilling to take it because of apprehensions concerning the extra commitment involved. We may be well aware of what we are supposed to be doing, yet we keep putting it off until eventually we either do it cursorily or neglect it completely.

After years of mitzvah-observance there can still be days when it seems the hardest thing to open the Siddur and begin the prayers, to put one's hand into one's pocket and give a little charity, to smile at someone we had an argument with... God's plan is to give us complete freedom of choice about the mitzvot. No matter how much the Prince desires to keep a mitzvah, the Turkey is likely to be there almost every step of the way with resistance and opposition of some kind: arguments against, other things to do, sudden irresistible impulses, fatigue and heaviness. The very holiness of the mitzvot may overwhelm us: “Who am I to put on the garments of the Prince?”

Look how the Wise Man got the Prince to put on his shirt.

After all the sitting and talking and getting to know each other, when the time was finally ripe “...the Wise Man gave a sign.”

What does this sign symbolize? We can look at it as an allusion to what Chassidut calls “the arousal from below.”

Everything in the world is in the hands of God, yet God has given us free will. We are surrounded by Godly opportunities and invitations; within our minds, holy thoughts and impulses come up all the time. These are God's call to us. They are what is termed “the arousal from above.” But we are given the freedom to respond or not respond. When offered a prompt, it is up to us to decide whether we will follow it or not. More than that, we have it in our power to take the initiative. We ourselves can make the first move, turning to God in order to receive His blessing. The move we make to lift ourselves spiritually is called “the arousal from below.”

The question may be asked: if everything is in the hands of God, how can we make an “arousal from below” without having had some “arousal from above” to stir us beforehand? In that case, the “arousal from below” is not really our own initiative. Do we have free will or don't we? This is a paradox that we do not have the understanding to resolve in this world. (See above pp. 129-31.) We cannot know why some holy thought or impulse enters our mind “out of nowhere.” What is important is that we do our part: when faced with a prompt, whether from within ourselves or the surrounding environment, it is up to us to stir ourselves and make a practical response.

When the path we have to take is right ahead of us, the first thing to do is to point ourselves in the right direction. Our initiative may be the slightest action: not wanting to get out of bed on a winter's morning, but still pulling off the cover; not feeling like praying, but opening the prayer book anyway; having no energy to do what one knows one has to do, but still whispering a few faint words of prayer: “God, help me to do this!” Such initiatives are like the “sign” the Wise Man made. With it he indicated that he was ready to have what he needed next sent down from above.

The Prince's shirt is there on the floor beside him. How does the Wise Man get him to put it on? He talks him into it! We too must use words to spur ourselves into action. Let the Wise Man in you talk to the Turkey. “Do you think a turkey can't wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey.” You may feel like a complete Turkey – interested mostly in just having things easy and pleasant, while negative about the idea of doing the mitzvah, overwhelmed with heaviness and apathy. The part of you that wants to do the mitzvah may seem weak and uninspired. Still, give voice to it, even in a whisper: “I want to.”

The Wise Man doesn't try anything too ambitious. He doesn't try to get the Prince to put all his clothes on at once. A single shirt is all he wants him to put on. One small, easy step. You can do that. Give voice to the Wise Man in you. “This is all I want to do right now. I may feel heavy and uninspired. I don't undertake that I'll do any more than this, but this much I can do. I can do this and still stay myself.” Starting off with small, easy steps is a fundamental rule in doing anything in life, from beginning your physical exercises in the morning to learning the Kabbalah of the ARI.

It is in fact impossible to put on all the clothes at once and practice all the mitzvot perfectly in one step. The mitzvot come from the Infinite God: they are pathways of overwhelming power. Trying to go too quickly can be a recipe for disaster. Getting involved with the life of the spirit can be very heady. People who start experimenting with intense prayer and study, hisbodidus, diet, exercise and so on may be tempted to try to take on too much too soon. One day they may be filled with a desire for holiness and purity, only to fall back the next day and drop to a lower level than the one they started on. Aim to be the best Jew you can be, but don't try to take on burdens that could break you.

“Do not be hurried. You may find many kinds of devotion in the sacred literature and ask, `When will I be able to fulfill even one of these devotions? How can I ever hope to keep them all?' Don't let this frustrate you.

“Go slowly, step by step. Do not rush and try to grasp everything at once. If you are over-hasty and try to grasp everything at once, you can become totally confused. When a house burns down, people often rescue the most worthless items. You can do the same in your confusion. Proceed slowly, one step at a time. If you cannot do everything, it is not your fault. One under duress is exempted by God.

“Even though there are many things you cannot do, you should still yearn to fulfill them. The longing itself is a great thing, for `God desires the heart' (Sanhedrin 106b)(Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #27).

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