May 20, 2011


Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Spirituality is on out of body experience.  Some of the most memorable sights during my travels in Eastern Europe were old synagogues with services in their entirety painted on the walls.  They were painted because these synagogues were built before the invention of the printing press, when the only one holding a siddur was the chazzan.  Some people knew their prayers by heart.  Some people needed a reminder, so they looked up at “the writing on the wall” (Daniel, Chapter 5).  Those that did not know their prayers had the chazzan, with an impeccable hand written siddur, chanting all of the prayers, and especially the repetition of the Amidah, on their behalf.

Today, our synagogues are convinced by their respective denominational movements to purchase multiple copies of the newest siddur with “new and improved” print, type set, and commentary.  This comes at great expense to congregations and fails to address the essential question: do these new siddurim contribute in any way to the prayer experience?  The answer is “no”!  In fact, I would be willing to bet that not a single Jew will enter the synagogue, join, or become more active in Jewish life on account of the recent purchase.

The introduction of the printed siddur for every individual did not save Jewish spiritual life.  It is, in fact, to its detriment.  When people burry their heads in the printed word, the nuances of the Hebrew, the translations, or the “newest” commentary, this makes spiritual concentration – the first step towards union with God- a near impossibility.  We don’t seek God by looking down.  We seek God by looking upward toward the magnificent Heavens, looking inward to find our inherent connection point to the spiritual realm, and not using our physical eyes at all so that our spiritual vision may be sharpened.

As we approach Lag Ba’Omer, we are reminded of the spiritual odyssey of the great author of the Zohar, the primary book of Kabbalah, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi).  Lag Ba’Omer is known as Rashbi’s Yahrtzeit and many Jews flock to his burial place in Meron, Israel on this day to pay tribute to the sage who brought the hidden light into view for Jewish mystics.

Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud, relates that to escape Roman persecution, Rashbi and his son hid in a cave which miraculously grew a carob tree and manifested a stream of water to sustain them.  Strangely, they removed their clothing and buried themselves in the sand.  There, they studied Torah and attained great levels of holiness and scholarship.

While many are tempted to simply accept this story, I wonder how they could study Torah or pray in a dark cave.  Did not the sand, which caused wounds upon Rashbi’s skin, cause him great discomfort and did this not interfere with his Torah study?  Upon further thought and examination, we understand that Rashbi’s seclusion from the rest of the world, darkness, and lack of comfort were spiritual devices meant to quiet his physical senses and open his spiritual eyes and ears.  As he placed his physical needs in the hands of God, totally dependent on a miraculous carob tree and stream of water (whether physical or spiritual), this experience is much like that of Moses on top of Mt. Sinai, alone with God, for forty days and forty nights with no food or water.  It is also much like a Native American vision quest.  Rashbi knew how to tap into his spiritual being and he knew that it had nothing to do with physical vision, clothing, or physical comfort.  In fact, the less we are connected to the physical, the more we are able to cling to God and attain holiness.  That, by the way, is why we fast on Yom Kippur- to detach ourselves from our physical need to eat and concentrate on the spiritual.

As we count the omer, seeking spiritual refinement with every passing day in imitation of Divine attributes (sefirot), and prepare ourselves to arrive at the scene of the revelation on Shavu’ot, the closest we will ever come as living beings to seeing God “face to face” because “no man may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20), let us remember that the revelation took place without any prayer books.  I would like to encourage us to reenact this experience in our synagogue services by memorizing our prayers to the best of our abilities and then to just put down those books.  We need to close our eyes during prayer and lose ourselves in an out of body experience.  If we do this right, we should lose awareness of our physical bodies and physical sensations.  The Torah and Haftorah reading become not something printed in our Chumashim to “follow along” with, but rather something listened to with eyes closed as they emanate from the bimah in a grand, loud, and musical chant – a reenactment of the Sinai revelation.

If we are to draw Jews back into Judaism, we must revert back to our authentic spiritual tradition and abandon our modern stuffy synagogue styles of worship based on the physical and the mundane.  We must close our eyes in order to see physical darkness and then, spiritual light.

The Torah tells us that, at Sinai, our ancestors “saw the sounds”(Exodus 20:15) of God’s revelation.  This teaches us that all of our physical senses are of little use when attempting to experience God.  What is needed is another sense – a spiritual sense- because spirituality is an out of body experience.

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