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Parashat Bereishit 5774 — 09/25/2013

Parashat Bereishit 5774 — 09/25/2013

I promised that this week I would reveal the source material from which I’ll be drawing this year, so here it is.  The Chafetz Chaim (R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1838-1933, was the gadol hador (the Great One of the generation) for the great bulk of his 95 years.  His works include Mishnah B’rurah, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law) which has come to be considered one of the most authoritative works of halachah, and Sefer Chafetz Chaim, a work on the all-important area of proper speech, by the title of which he is universally known.  The name comes from two lines in Psalm 34: Who is the man who desires life (chafetz chaim) … Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile.  He naturally spoke often on the weekly parashah, and his teachings were collected by his students and published in 1943 by R. Shmuel Greineman as Chafetz Chaim al haTorah.  The book has been translated into English as Chafetz Chaim on the Torah, published in 2012 by Israel Bookshop publishers.

Given his identification with issues regarding speech, it is perhaps fitting that the Chafetz Chaim has some interesting points to make regarding speech in this, the first parashah of Torah.  Speech enters the picture in two ways.  First, the Creation is Gd’s speech.  Gd created the universe with 10 utterances (Pirke Avot 5:1), and, according to our tradition, it is only Gd’s continuous “speech” that maintains the universe in existence.

The second point at which speech comes in is in the creation of human beings.  Scripture says that Gd breathed into [Adam] the breath of life, and the human became a living soul.  In a well-known explanatory rendering, Onkelos translates “living soul” as “speaking spirit” (ruach m’mal’la).  Apparently, just as there is something about speech that is essential to Gd’s role as Creator, so in some way there is something about our capability of speech that is essential to our nature as human beings.  Perhaps this is one of the implications of the fact that humankind was created in Gd’s image.

The Chafetz Chaim, in commenting on our ability to speak, notes that all the other activities we undertake require our conscious direction for them to achieve their purpose.  He gives the example of a carpenter, who has to pay attention as he drives the nail so that it goes into the wood properly, and so he doesn’t hit himself on the thumb with his hammer.  When we speak, however, we don’t have to consciously direct the tongue and lips and throat how to align themselves to produce the sounds of the words.  This leaves us free to focus on the meaning of what we are saying, otherwise just getting a sentence or two out would be very time-consuming.

Along with this gift of Hashem to us comes a responsibility.  Since we can concentrate on what we are saying, it is incumbent upon us actually to do so.  Words and speech are extremely powerful; Gd has already demonstrated that to us in the first chapter of Bereishit by using speech to create the universe.  In the same way, we have the power to create by our speech, and we have the power to destroy by our speech.  The speech of the serpent, the prototype of improper speech, is a prime example.  Unfortunately, we too often use our speech for the latter purposes – Jews (and the State of Israel) have been and still are the targets of campaign after campaign of slander, deligitimization and demonization, all of which lead to phenomena like the Holocaust and the UN “Human Rights” Council.  Our apparent inability in the US, fostered by our media, to speak civilly to one another, especially in political discourse, has effectively precluded us from working together to solve the pressing problems facing us.  If we don’t learn to start speaking the truth, but speaking it sweetly, we will not have much of a planet left to live on.

I think we can take the Chafetz Chaim’s thinking a bit further.  Speech is based on thought.  If we want to refine our speech, we first need to refine thought.  If you want to avoid speaking in a derogatory manner about others, Torah informs us we should “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Speech, once loosed, cannot readily be undone.  A thought may not be as easy to control, but while it is still inside us – that means, at a subtler level than overt speech or action – we can choose whether or not to act on it.  There is a clever bumper sticker out there that says: “Don’t believe everything you think.”  Even more should we remember not to act on every thought we have.

Jewish law actually provides many mechanisms for purifying our thoughts, and thereby our speech and action.  We are restricted in certain areas of sensory input, especially those relating to sexual arousal.  Abiding by these restrictions prevents the oversexed condition that characterizes the thought process of a great number of people in the West, and perhaps elsewhere as well.  We are enjoined to spend all our free time engrossed in Torah study.  This fills our thoughts with sublime ideas about Gd and His interaction with the universe, and with us.  And we are enjoined to pray regularly, which engages both thoughts and speech to connect us with Gd.  “An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop,” to paraphrase the old saw.  We can purify and refine our thoughts and speech by keeping them engaged in a proper direction, and not leaving them any room, nor any time, to deviate off into negative directions.

Speech is the mechanism Gd uses to project Himself outward into Creation, and speech is the mechanism we use to project ourselves outward as well.  Let’s do our best this upcoming year to make sure that we project holiness and purity into our surroundings, and we’ll see them becoming more and more nourishing to ourselves and to everyone around us.

Shemoneh Esrei

Beginning with Shabbat Bereishit we recite Borchi Nafshi (Psalm 104) and Shir haMa’alot (Psalms 120-134, corresponding to the 15 steps between the lower and upper courtyards in the Temple).  For the last few years I’ve been planning to write something about these Psalms, as I do for Pirke Avot after Pesach.  Then I quickly recall how tone-deaf I am to poetry – even King David’s Divinely inspired poetry – and shelve the idea.  This year I received in the mail a translation of Ye’arot D’vash by R. Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690 – 1764, Poland).  The translation is by R. Avraham Yaakov Finkel and it is published by Yeshivath Beth Moshe in Scranton.  This collection of sermons has a section on the Amidah prayer of the daily service(s); since after many years of saying the Amidah thrice daily anyone would have some ideas occur to them, I thought I would devote a paragraph or two each week to the Amidah.  I’ll also be drawing from a wonderful 5-minutes-a-day to better prayer called Praying with Fire by R. Heshy Kleinman.  It is well worth the 5 minutes a day.

The structure of the Amidah is tri-fold.  The first three blessings are blessings in praise of Gd, and the last three are blessings of thanksgiving.  The middle blessings (13 in the daily amidah, one generally in the Shabbat and Festival amidah) are our requests of Gd – requests that Gd arrange the world around us so that we can comfortably do His Will.  (On Shabbat and Festivals the middle blessing is a sanctification of the day, as our attitude on these days is that the world is just perfect as it is!)

The nature of requesting something from Gd presents a bit of a conundrum.  If Gd knows exactly what is good for us, and has carefully measured out exactly what experiences and resources we need at every moment of our lives, why would we even want to ask Him to change His decrees.  Yet that is exactly what we seem to be doing.  There is no easy answer to this question, and indeed, at times it seems that Gd does, indeed, ignore or deny our requests.  The answer that I have seen the most, and which seems the most satisfying to me, is that the point of prayer is not to change Gd, which is in any event almost a contradiction in terms, as Gd is infinite and unchanging.

Rather, the effect of prayer is to bring us closer to Gd and to align our awareness more closely with Gd’s Will.  When this happens, the entire calculus of what we need changes, and consequently our experiences change to reflect our new status.  If we have money issues, perhaps it is because we are not being scrupulously honest in some way in our business dealings.  Perhaps in our prayers we come to trust in Gd more as our Provider, and no longer feel the need to cut corners.  When our attitude and our behavior change, that opens us up to be able to receive more of Gd’s blessings, and our money issues somehow resolve themselves.

Whatever the mechanism by which prayer has its effect, it only has that effect for those who pray.  I hope that by passing on some information and ideas about the central prayer in the liturgy that you will be inspired to make prayer a regular part of your routine.