Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chosen

By Moshe Parelman

G-d said He would choose us if we chose Him.

It was the second day of the month of Sivan, four days before the Giving of the Torah. Moses ascended Mount Sinai early that morning. G-d called out to him, instructing Moses to tell the Jewish nation encamped opposite the mountain, “And now, if you heed Me and keep My covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine (Exodus 19:5).” Choose My Torah and its mitzvot, which I am ready to give you, and I will choose you as My nation.

G-d made His choice of the Jewish people conditional on their accepting His commandments because the mitzvot are G-d’s tools for achieving His master plan. That plan is the ultimate reason for Creation and the mission He chose the Jews to carry out.

G-d created the world, according to the Torah, because He desired a finite, physical place, foreign to divinity – and reside there. G-d wanted the universe to feel so familiar to Him He could be Himself there, like a person in his living room.

To satisfy that desire G-d gave the Jewish people mitzvot to transform an imperfect world into a dwelling place for G-d by elevating mundane physical matter to holiness.

One could question, however, why the commandments distinguish the Jewish people as “Chosen.” Since the beginning of time people with their good deeds have refined the material
G-d gave them, turning barbarianism into civilization, improving life and curing disease: stones to wheels; sounds to symphonies; mold to penicillin; sand to computer chips. Surely the march of civilization has made the planet a more hospitable environment for G-d.

Still there must be something unique about doing a mitzvah – some quality that makes the act the preferred way to bring out the divine in the world.

Maybe the difference lies in intention. When a Jew lights Shabbat candles she intends to attach herself to G-d’s will as expressed in that commandment. The inventor of the heart transplant or the mappers of the human genome, although benefiting G-d’s creation, weren’t necessarily intending to do G-d’s will.

Unlike in contemporary times, though, in past centuries many scientists were religious men, some even inspired by G-d to investigate nature. Consider the case of Isaac Newton. Newton, in his own words, intended with the Principia – his great work of physics which more than any other book helped usher in modern science – to demonstrate the existence of G-d in the world. Newton wanted to make the world welcome to G-d’s being here, basically the Jewish mission. Intention, then, apparently doesn’t separate the mitzvah from the societal contribution.

So maybe the mitzvah’s uniqueness derives not from intention but from the mitzvah act. The mitzvah, a sacred undertaking, serves as a vehicle for G-d’s plan for the universe. The civilization advancing achievement, a secular activity, is perhaps unable to channel the divine mission.

But the Torah itself says otherwise. According to the Talmud, doctors don’t heal their patients. G-d does. The doctor is merely a vehicle for G-d’s blessing and will. That means that Edward Jenner, who developed the first vaccine (for small pox), Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, your doctor, and your mother, who gave you medicine when you were sick, were all doing G-d’s work. So the contributor to society carries out G-d’s plan, just as the mitzvah achiever does.

Nonetheless, the secular improvement and the mitzvah are different. And the reason is there are two plans.

The person who makes a contribution to civilization helps implement G-d’s immediate, short-term plan: creating a settled, humane planet. When man betters the planet, he connects with G-d through Creation. He takes from the material G-d made for the world during Creation and innovates – the number zero, genetic sequencing – to improve the universal condition. The innovator improves the world, but it remains essentially the same one that G-d created.

The mitzvah doer, by contrast, shoulders G-d’s long-term, permanent plan: laying the groundwork for the Era of Mashiach. That strategy prescribes transforming the planet into a dwelling place for G-d. Because making over the universe is so extraordinary, indeed otherworldly, the project requires a special tool.

The tool, the mitzvah, converts the part of the physical world used to perform the commandment, as well as the mitzvah doer, into a vehicle for holiness. When a Jewish person gives tzedakah (charity), according to Chassidic philosophy, the time and energy spent by the person in earning that money ascends with the mitzvah to the sacred.

But the Jew and his mitzvah cannot revolutionize the globe employing only the elements
G-d used to create the world we’ve always known. To elevate a Jew’s labor and money into something holy – to contribute to the transformation of the planet into a Mashiach planet – the mitzvah channels new life into the world from G-d’s very essence. That is the uniqueness of the mitzvah.

G-d chose the Jewish people to complete Creation. At Mount Sinai He entrusted us with His Torah and mitzvot – per our approval – to purify the earth, mitzvah by mitzvah. Over three millennia of mitzvot later, the world stands on the brink of a new reality. And the two who chose each other at Sinai will finally be together, here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Resting with G-d

By Moshe Parelman


… And G-d finished on the Seventh Day His work which He had done, and He rested on the Seventh Day from all His work which He had done (Genesis 2:1).

Six days you shall work and the seventh day you shall rest … (Exodus 23:12).

Creating the world in six days was a mammoth undertaking. But did G-d really have to rest? We’re talking about G-d. Man getting a day off, however, makes perfect sense. What perplexes me is that G-d thought He needed to make the world’s rest day a commandment. Resting from backbreaking labor just makes good health sense. What did G-d add by consecrating my weekend? To answer that question, to understand how rest can be holy, we need to first consider something more familiar, the work that makes rest desirable.
Right now I am writing, which I consider work. To perform this work I must invest my creative powers. I draw from my intellect to determine what I’m going to say, how I’m going to say it, the relationship between ideas, what words to use, where to put the commas, semicolons and periods … Yes, I know you’re impressed. I also invest my emotions. I can’t write sincerely or convincingly if I don’t love what I’m writing about. Above all, I must delight in my work. Without taking pleasure in the completed piece as I imagine it, I have no reason to channel my mind and heart into the writing.
Now while I’m doing the actual writing I can’t deploy the full force of my intellectual and emotional powers. As I channel my knowledge of Chassidic teachings on Shabbat into these sentences, I can’t access my understanding of the law of two who grab the same tallis or Rashi’s commentary on why Abraham told the Egyptians Sarah was his sister. By the same token, the love I feel for this essay must be limited to the present topic to the exclusion of my passion for, say, Matzah or Baal Shem Tov stories.
Above all, I can’t delight in my vision of the finished story while I’m occupied with writing it. In the midst of expressing my ideas and emotions, gazing at the computer screen and furrowing my brow, no one can see the pleasure with which I anticipate the final keystroke. Only when the job is done, when my intellectual and emotional faculties become disengaged from the work and return to me, will I delight.
G-d intended a satisfying conclusion to His work, the Six Days of Creation. But while He was engaged in the job, employing the supernal powers of intellect and emotion to construct the universe, the original vision G-d delighted in was not yet realized. Delighting at that point was irrelevant. Once G-d completed His work, allowing His powers to return from their labor to rest in their essence – once the Creation was at hand – G-d delighted. That pleasure is elicited anew every Shabbat.
G-d, then, had good reason to make resting a commandment. Besides its physical benefits, Shabbat recharges our spiritual batteries. In fact the Shabbat rest is a whole package deal, healing body, mind and soul, with tranquil rest and pleasure.
What about G-d, though? We need a good Shabbat to complete what we lack during the week. But G-d is perfect. He shouldn’t have had to rest after the inaugural workweek. Truth be told, He didn’t have to. He did it for us.
G-d created the world in a way that we can emulate, using creative powers in six days with a seventh day of rest. He did so because He wanted us to be His partner in perfecting Creation. To strengthen our resolve to complete the work, He gave us Shabbat, a time to renew our senses and a foretaste of the perfect world to come.
The culmination of our refinement of the world, week by week, Shabbat after Shabbat, will be the Era of Moshiach. The Talmud calls that time, our reward after 5,770 years on the job, the “day that is entirely Shabbat and rest for eternal life.” May we soon enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I Am My Father

As the year of mourning for my father draws to a close, I find comfort in remembering him and the times we shared: my father standing in line to buy us tickets to baseball’s all-star game the year it was played in Kansas City, even though he wasn’t a sports fan, because he knew how much going meant to me; the way he would soothe me with a talk and walk around the block; the pride he felt in the Sukkah he built for us when I came home too late to make one myself; or just watching TV with him and laughing because he was laughing so hard at a funny line in “The Odd Couple” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Memories aside, my father consoles me simply because he is my father. The love between father and son, as I happened to learn in a Chassidic discourse shortly before he died, expresses a stronger bond than any other love.

Chassidic philosophy speaks of two kinds of love: emotional and essential. Love, as the other emotions, is self-interested. Completely absorbed in the Self, to become aroused love must feel itself.

When I drive my car, I feel the cold steering wheel touching my hands. But I’m really not feeling the steering wheel or even the cold on it. I’m feeling the sensation in my hands. Similarly, when I’m loving someone, I don’t feel the loveable qualities of my friend; I experience my own sensations of love within me and the recognition – transmitted to my emotions from my brain – that my friend’s decency and caring are good for me.

Essential love, in contrast, does not need to sense any virtue or act of kindness from the loved one to become aroused. Essential love exists whenever two people – a father and son – are connected to each other’s essence. I long for my father because I want his essence and being, my essence and being.

To generate feelings of love for my friend I must think about his warm smile and the dinner he bought me on my birthday. I love my father because when I bow my head, close my eyes and think for a moment about who I am, my father is there. To want my father I just have to be his son.

Love does not stop when one life ends. We remain connected, and because of that bond I say Kaddish for 11 months. The recitation of Kaddish, blessing G-d’s name in public to which the minyan answers “Amen,” eases the soul’s transition from this world to the next. Three time a day, before reciting the final “Kaddish d’Rabbanan,” I say to myself, as the Rebbe did when he mourned for his wife, a line from the first Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Tanya, which expresses the soul’s intrinsic bond with G-d: “The second, uniquely Jewish, soul is truly ‘a part of G-d above.’”

Like the son, who derives his essence from his father, the soul’s essence always stays bound to its source, G-d above. And like the son, who is connected to the father even before he is born, the soul at the outset of its journey back to G-d is already one with its Father.