Tag Archives: meditation

Crossing the Ford of the Jabbok

PrayingHear my prayer, O Lord, Give ear to my supplications! Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness! And do not enter into judgment with Your servant, For in Your sight no man living is righteous. For the enemy has persecuted my soul; He has crushed my life to the ground; He has made me dwell in dark places, like those who have long been dead. Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed within me; My heart is appalled within me. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land. Selah.

Psalm 143:1-6 (NASB)

Part of the Returning to the Tent of David series

This is the “flip side” to this morning’s meditation, The Christianization of Acts 15. Every couple of weeks or so, I have coffee and conversation with a friend who is smarter and wiser than I am. Certainly, his spirit is far closer to God than mine. I often tell him of my thoughts and feelings and he is direct and forthright in his response.

This is a continuation of my Returning to the Tent of David series since it has a direct connection to my reacquaintance with the church and how I have been conducting myself within its walls.

Apparently, I haven’t been doing so well.

I spend a fair amount of time expressing my point of view on this blog. I guess that’s OK since, after all, it is my blog, my platform for talking about my experiences as they occur. But I also air out my opinions of and frustrations with the church and its members on occasion. I commented to my friend that I felt my Sunday school teacher is rather dogmatic in how he presents his lessons. And the instant the words left my lips, I knew what he was going to say.

So am I, just with a different point of view.

I’ve been spending a lot of time presenting and expressing my opinions. But what about God? That is, who is expending the effort here and whose purpose is being served, mine or God’s? In my friend’s view, it’s the former, totally.

No, he isn’t being too hard on me and in fact, I have every reason to believe he speaks not only with an honest heart, but from the heart of God. I’ve been studying and using what I’ve learned as a sword or a club to “go after” those with whom I disagree, and without the slightest concern about God’s desires. I guess I assumed that if I was doing this, it must be what God wants, but that was arrogant presumption on my part. I never even considered the possibility that I wasn’t in the right spiritual frame from which to conduct such activities.

No, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop going to church, attending Sunday school, or meeting with my Pastor (unless none of them will have me anymore). It does mean I need to take a step backward and start “preparing” for these actions in a different way.

Yes, studying the Bible is good. Studying intelligent and informative commentaries is good. But is it the mind and will of God that makes change, not the efforts of mere men.

There’s little doubt that my Pastor and I, in meeting together, are each trying to help the other change in a particular direction. Of course, I learn a great deal from these conversations, but I’m also hoping to impart something as well. But so far, I’m the only one doing the imparting. Has God been in my voice? Am I even aware of His presence in the Pastor’s office? For that matter, am I aware of God’s presence in the chapel during services or in the classroom during Sunday school?

Man aloneThe vast majority of the time, I must say “no.”

My friend keeps suggesting I “meditate” on the Bible, but the word “meditate” seems indistinct to me. He says it’s matter of considering a portion of scripture and mulling it over. What does it mean? What does it mean to me? What can it tell me about God and about myself? What scripture should I choose?

I meditate on all Your doings;
I muse on the work of Your hands.

I read books, including the Bible, as fast as I can, as if I’m in some sort of race to cover the maximum amount of territory in the least amount of time. I’m only mortal and my span on this sphere is exceptionally limited. God is infinite and forever. He can afford to take His time. After all, it is His time; He made it. Time exists only within His will and should He desire, time would cease to exist and scurry back to the nothingness from whence it came.

“In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David,
And wall up its breaches;
I will also raise up its ruins
And rebuild it as in the days of old;
That they may possess the remnant of Edom
And all the nations who are called by My name,”
Declares the Lord who does this.

Amos 9:11-12 (NASB)

I keep coming back to these verses because they define my purpose within a “Hebraic” and “Messianic” context. I say “my purpose” but it’s really the purpose of any non-Jewish disciple of Messiah, “the nations who are called by My Name,” says the Lord. It’s the “job description” for Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah who perceive that they are operating within a Jewish religious and spiritual context and not necessarily inside of “goyishe Christianity.”

I’m not trying to be insulting, but consider who our King is and from where he will reign. Can there be any doubt that Moshiach our King is and will be King of Israel, King of the Jews, and only out of all that is he King of the World?

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Humility is something I didn’t think far from my grasp, but a guess I am farther from its sheltering arms than I imagined. This isn’t my battle. I didn’t come here to fight. I came here to serve God. What an interesting thought, since it never occurred to me to say it that way before. I always thought, harkening back to Boaz’s book, that I returned to the church to help breach the gap between the traditional fundamental and evangelical perspective on Jesus, the Bible, and everything and how it all should be seen within the Jewish context, using Jewish terms, Hebrew language, and especially removing the paint from “Joseph’s” alien face (Genesis 45:4) to reveal the son of Jacob or more to the point, the son of David…the Jewish son and firstborn of Israel. The son of God.

man-without-a-coatIf this is how you want me to serve you God, then I have to admit I haven’t been doing such a good job. If this isn’t what you’ve wanted me to do, then I’ve been doing an even worse job than I thought.

How can I promote any form of healing at all by “banging heads” with other people or by beating my head against a wall? When Jacob wrestled the Divine, in midrash, it is said that Jacob wrestled with his doubts, or his evil inclination, or his own dark angel. He had to conquer something in himself before he could take the next steps back into the Land his descendants would one day inherit, the Land of Promise. Is that my mission as well, to conquer something within myself?

That I should slow down, take time with scripture, mull and turn over the Word in my mind and heart, meditate on His wisdom day and night is all worthy and right, and I’ve been in too much of a hurry to actually do it. Where will my spirit and the Spirit of God find a common meeting ground? Jacob arose at night, crossed the ford of the Jabbok and was left alone. There he encountered God. Jacob wrestled for the rest of the night and when the sun began to dawn, the battle was still raging. Jacob’s “companion,” seeing he had not prevailed, injured Jacob, permanently disabling him (see Genesis 32:22-32). But Jacob also received a blessing, a new name, and a mission to form a dynasty; to  ultimately become the father of a mighty nation that belongs only to God.

I seriously doubt my destiny is such a great thing in God’s eyes or in man’s. And yet there must be some reason for my existence, else God would have long since extinguished me, like I might blow out a candle. Not that I’m such a great light or even a small one. Who can glory in their own light when confronted with the blazing inferno of an Everlasting God? Only a fool. I pray that I am no fool, though I know I’ve been foolish.

God will judge us not according to how much we endured, but how much we could love.

-Richard Wurmbrand

Whatever God wants me to do could easily fail if it was all up to me. Having launched myself in a particular direction for nearly a year, I haven’t looked back and I haven’t checked the map. I just figured if I went in a nice, straight line, I’d end up where I’m supposed to be. But there are no nice straight lines in my terrain, only back alleys, narrow corridors, dark tunnels, and labyrinthine passages. Getting lost if I am the only navigator is a foregone conclusion.

…but whatever your original intentions, you have become truly lost.

-Ducard (played by Liam Neeson)
Batman Begins (2005)

extinguished_candleIs that me? Maybe. Or maybe it’s what I’m on my way to becoming. But according to my friend, it’s not too late. I can slow down the horse, so to speak, take stock of my surroundings, renew my connection to God, through the Bible, through meditation on His Word, through prayer, through sincere repentance. Like a watchman on the walls of the city at night, I rely on the Presence of God as I await the dawn, considering His mighty deeds, recalling Days of Old, meditating upon Him in my heart.

My voice rises to God, and I will cry aloud;
My voice rises to God, and He will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
In the night my hand was stretched out without weariness;
My soul refused to be comforted.
When I remember God, then I am disturbed;
When I sigh, then my spirit grows faint. Selah.
You have held my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I have considered the days of old,
The years of long ago.
I will remember my song in the night;
I will meditate with my heart,
And my spirit ponders…

Psalm 77:1-6 (NASB)

And my spirit ponders…as I cross the ford of the Jabbok and am left alone in the dark…waiting.

Locking Up Meditation

There are three forms of hitbon’nut (contemplation, meditation):

  1. Study-meditation: After mastering the concept thoroughly, one meditates on its profundity, until the intellectual element shines forth for him.
  2. Meditation before davening: This is directed toward sensing the vitality of the concept learned, in contrast to sensing the intellectual element emphasized in study-meditation.
  3. Meditation in davening: To sense the “G-dly element” in the concept learned.

These three are rungs on the ladder of sensitivity. It is only by G-d’s kindness towards us that we may occasionally sense G-dhood spontaneously, without any avoda at all. This comes about by virtue of the quality of Ultimate Essential G-dhood within the soul. For avoda by one’s own efforts, however, these three forms of meditation are essential.

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Tamuz 20, 5703
Torah lessons: Chumash: Pinchas, Shishi with Rashi.
Tehillim: 97-103.
Tanya: Precisely so (p. 357) …or articulation. (p. 357).
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Don’t be discouraged. It’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.

-Author unknown

I always consider meditation to be a quiet, contemplative state. As such, I never enter into it. I know that seems completely contrary to the basic premise of this blog, but I find it very difficult to quiet my mind. About the closest I come to a conscious, meditative state is the four minutes I’m cooling down after an aerobic workout on the elliptical machine. I can close my eyes and imagine my breath going in and out as a frosty, illuminated vapor in the darkness. All I’m trying to achieve though, is to slow my heart rate down as much as I can so that when I get off the machine, it’s not still pounding away at 150+ beats per minute.

I’m not contemplating God.

Even when I do contemplate God, it’s in a sea of static and chaos. It’s difficult or impossible to enter into a space where it’s just Him and me. Frankly, I don’t know if I even want to enter into that space. God is big and scary and I’m not even sure how guys like Abraham and Moses could stand being in His presence for even one split second. The God that created the Universe and everything in it isn’t some comfortable cosmic teddy bear that you can just walk up to and then sit in His lap.

Most days, I have a really good idea what I want to blog about, but not today. I pretty much burned off all my passion in yesterday’s meditation. Today, I’m emotionally drained. Wiped out. I know it probably doesn’t look this way from the outside, but some of these mediations take a lot of energy to write.

I just saw a photo of me (thankfully, I’m way in the background) in some promotional material for where I work. Everyone else looks fresh and young and happy. I look really old and fat and worn out. While I’ve got all this dynamic energy that sparks up in most of my “morning mediations,” today I feel like that picture (believe me, you don’t want to see it). I have this horrible feeling that’s how I look all the time.

I’m kind of reminded of the character Happy Hogan who first appeared in the comic book Tales of Suspense #45 (September 1963) with Iron Man. Marvel comics has “handsomed him up” quite a bit since those days, but back then, he was created for comic relief (along with Tony Stark’s then “mousy” secretary Pepper Potts). Happy rescued Tony from a race car crash and as a reward, Tony gave the out-of-work boxer a job as his chauffeur and personal assistant. Happy was always looking completely glum and “hang-dog”. Tony commented on it early in their relationship and asked if he was depressed. Happy’s response was something like, “Nah, I look like this all the time.”

I think I look like this all the time. OK, so I’ve never been a really attractive person, but I think this is more than age and carrying around a bunch of extra tonnage. I think I get tired of fighting God or fighting life or are they both the same thing? Problem is, that sort of fight is unavoidable. You only stop fighting when you die. Until then, it seems like it’s one battle after another, hammering away at something or being hammered at by something.

I try to imagine what it would be like to not fight. To relax. To set aside responsibility and duty, not just for a few minutes, or an hour, or when I’m asleep, but to really relax. Don’t say “vacation” because vacations are anything but relaxing. In fact, they’re harder work than going to work. Besides, even the most relaxing vacation in the world has to end sometime.

Paul spoke of “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) but I haven’t found it yet. I suspect I never will.

My “morning meditations” are really more like “morning encounters” or “morning contemplations” or even “morning conflicts”. I sleep. Wake up. Drink coffee. Go to the gym with my son. Eat breakfast. Take a shower. Go to work. Somewhere in the rest of the day, the next morning’s meditation gets written depending on my available time and what I’m thinking about. I eat dinner. Go to sleep. And the cycle starts all over again.

If someone has this lovey-dovey, floating on clouds, easy-peasy relationship with God and faith that keeps them in a semi-divine state as they slowly sail through each day, I’d like to know about it. I’m probably not a good candidate for such a state, even if it exists, but sometimes, as fluffy as it all sounds, I think I’d like a piece of it.

We are representatives of Above. And as such, live two lives at once:

We are free-thinking, independent beings.

And we are no more than messengers of Above.

It is a play of opposites in a single being. An impossibility realized in true-life drama. Just the sort of thing in which the Impossible One Above delights.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Rabbi Freeman presents an idealized view of the thoughts and expressions of the Rebbe and thus of the Chabad, but I know there’s a reality behind Crown Heights in Brooklyn that isn’t anywhere near as pretty. That’s not to say anything against the Chabad as such, but to acknowledge that humans are humans and we can make a mess of things on the inside, even if the outside looks good.

My insides and my outsides seem to look the same, that is rather threadbare and lumpy. All the religious and motivational stuff on the web often seems empty to me because all of that “feel good” material seems so phony and unrealistic. Life is a struggle. You fight hard every day. You can only hope that food and sleep will rejuvenate you enough to face another day just like the one that came before. Somewhere in there, God is present, but who knows exactly where or when or if He’ll make Himself known or intervene in any meaningful way?

Between the “free-thinking, independent being” and the “messenger of Above,” there’s an ordinary (or sometimes I feel, sub-standard) human being who is just trying to stay alive and make sense the events of each passing moment. Making sense of life and contemplating the nature of God doesn’t happen as much as you’d think.

I get tired. Sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing all this. I’ve also just been reminded again of how many Jews see Christians so…gee whiz.

Time for another cup of coffee and then back to work…

..and to try to find that last key that will open the lock to…who knows what?

Learning to Breathe

Breath, the inhale and exhale, marking life itself. From the first breath to the last, the constant inhale and exhale signifies vitality.

Take a moment to experience it. Breathe deeply. Fill your lungs with the fresh, pure oxygen. This inhale represents your very inner, core essence; your very being in life. It signifies who you are.

Now, release it; let it all out. Witness your breath exiting and meshing with your surrounding. This represents your doing in life, your impacting on the outside world and accomplishing. Your inhale is self-preservation, defining your own boundaries of self. Your exhale is your universal imprint on the society and world around you.

All beings and any life force experience this duality of inner and outer; inner parameters and boundaries versus outer affects and imprints. Who it is and what it does. The protection of its inherent boundaries, and its reaching out to the world.

The greater a life force the more evident is its inhale and exhale.

-Chana Weisberg
“In and Out”
Chassidic Thought

I’ve been looking for ways to unload my surplus stress and to reorganize my life around life, rather than around anxiety, depression, and despair. (OK, things aren’t quite that bad, but still…) After “plumping up” over the past few months, I’ve returned to the gym in a (vain) attempt to dump my belly fat and to fit more comfortably in my jeans.

I’m also trying to fit more comfortably inside my skin and my skull and my being.

It’s no secret that I’ve been struggling a bit lately, as evidenced by my family’s Passover Seder as well as other recent events. Although I know that the struggle with mortality and humanity is unavoidable, it’s still difficult to let go and to integrate all of the ugly little bits and pieces of reality into my life, rather than shunning them. I need some way to reminding myself, even at the worst of times, that God has not disappeared down the cosmic rabbit hole and escaped my angst and anguish.

I’m trying to learn how to breathe.

Obviously, I know how to breathe and I’m not talking about some esoteric or mystic breathing technique used during deep meditation. Well, not exactly. I was remembering a quote from a few episodes of Star Trek Voyager, where the character Tuvok (played by Tim Russ) in assisting another member of the crew to meditate. Tuvok would say something like, “Turn your attention to the white light that is your breath..”

I can’t remember the exact quote and my Googling skills have failed me. (but thanks to the helpful commenter (see below) for supplying the correct link and quote) However, I try to imagine my breath as a white light as I breathe in and out during exercise. This image is especially helpful during the last five minutes of an aerobic workout, when I’m trying to reduce my heart rate back to some semblance of normalcy, rather than trying to go from 156 to 70 in a single, sudden stop. I’m actually able to close my eyes and visualize the light as it goes in and out of my mouth and lungs.

With my legs still moving on the machine, I can imagine myself on a trail. It is narrow, with the forest on either side of me. The trail is going up and I can see the crest of the hill ahead of me. There’s a point where the sky meets the ground that is a bright, white light. My breath seems to go to and come from that light. I realize that I’m getting closer to the top and the light is getting brighter. And yet, I’m not able to get too close.

I know that the light is God and that, in those few short moments as I’m encouraging my body to go from working very hard to beginning to calm down, I’m also approaching that calm with my mind, my feelings, and my spirit.

Indeed all creation, say the Kabbalists, is characterized by this to and fro movement, called ratzo v’shuv (running forth and drawing back) or mati v’lo mati (reaching and retreating).

The heart contracts and expands; the lungs exhale and inhale. On a deeper level, the body sleeps, extinguishing its active faculties in order to rejuvenate. The earth enters an interlude of night and winter in order to vivify itself with the necessary energies for its more outward oriented dawn of spring.

The same is true of the flow of vitality from G-d to His creation. This flow also comes in flashes of running forth and drawing back, reaching and retreating.

Furthermore, each breath of life — each protective withholding of boundaries as well as each outer exertion — reflects the Divine balance and flow to creation.


Each breath we take, each beat of our heart, separates us from eternity and yet joins us with the infinite at the same time. God breathed life into the first man and something of that breath exists within all of the living. When we think of ourselves as being “created in the image of God,” we (OK, I) tend to imagine that image as static and unchanging. I can’t really picture what that “image” must look like, but when I’m breathing in and out the light of God’s breath, the Spirit of God and man are dynamically being interchanged, interwoven, and stirred together. I have no way to truly understand God, but in those few minutes, as a strive to approach the top of the trail and to reach the light, I am able to touch something and to share something with God.

And He shares a little something with me.

Come and see! G-d made the world by a breath and by the breath of the mouths of those who study Torah it is preserved.

-Translated and annotated by Rahmiel-Hayyim Drizin
from the Zohar selection in Hok L’Yisrael
Based on Zohar Bereishit 47a

It is common for us to try to understand God and who we are in Him, by studying the Bible as well as other learned texts. We read and we attend classes and we ask knowledgeable teachers our questions and attempt to touch the edge of great mysteries.

It is also common to pray and to reach out with our thoughts and feelings to God, calling across the bridge that stands between the earthly and the Divine in the hopes that we can reach Him and in some way, connect with something that is part of our Creator.

But for all that effort, and none of it is wasted, sharing something with God may be as simple as taking a deep breath, letting it out, and visualizing that light going in and out of us as the breath we share with God. His light fills us every time we take a breath, and He wills every beat of our heart.

We are alive because He is the Living God.

There will come a time, very soon, when we will be shown miracles so great, they will make the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea appear as ordinary as nature itself.

So great, no mind can begin to fathom them;
so powerful, they will transform the very fabric of our world, elevating it in a way that the wonders of the Exodus never did.

For then, our eyes will be opened and granted the power to see the greatest of miracles: Those miracles that occur to us now, beneath our very noses, every day.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Greater Miracles”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Every moment we’re alive, and each time we breathe in and breathe out, is a miracle.


We’re talking about meditating – as per our last installment. About taking the reins of that gray matter and restructuring it for inspired living. Who’s going to take those reins? Who’s doing the restructuring? There must be some aspect of mind that transcends the gray meat and is able to look at it and say, “Naah—better off this way!” Otherwise, why would a brain care about restructuring itself – or even realize it requires restructuring?

We’ve known this for a long time. We’ve known that there is an aspect of the human being that comes wrapped with the meat and bones, while there’s another aspect that enters from beyond. That is why, writes the 14th-century commentator, Rabbeinu Bechayei, the book of Genesis tells the story of the creation of the first human being twice: once to describe the animal called homo sapiens, and then again to describe the injection of a G-dly soul into this creature — “And He blew into his nostrils the breath of life.”

So there are (at least) two persons in there: a basic human animal person, and a G-dly person. Two big roommates in a small human frame – with very different tastes in interior decorating. Which can get very ugly.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Chabad Meditation”
Last entry in the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series

In yesterday’s morning meditation, I presented the concept of Jewish, or more specifically, Chasidic meditation as a means of preparing for entry into prayer. The idea is that, before climbing the ladder of Jacob, so to speak, in order to enter into the presence of the King, you prepare your mind and spirit through meditating on God, His wonders, His works, His meaning. You immerse yourself in God as one steps into a pool and submerges into the depths of His mystery and His identity. Then you emerge and are ready to stand before the Throne.

However, this last entry into Rabbi Freeman’s series on Jewish prayer expands and transforms the meaning of meditation to include the internal restructuring of the person. This is actually my primary goal at the moment; a personal restructuring of my understanding of myself and life and how I can choose to interpret events differently than I have in the past. From the Chasidic point of view, the restructuring involves the transaction between the purely human “meat animal” of a person, and that part of us God breathed into our bodies.

Here’s the really exciting part for me.

So, to put this all together, we are describing meditation as a form of negotiations between a non-meat-related soul that is basically G-d breathing inside, principally concerned with going back to where it came from, and a human brain that comes wrapped in gray and white meat and is principally concerned with, well, meat kinds of things – eating, sleeping, procreating, collecting toys, and getting lots of people to say what a wonderful human being he is.

A daunting task. What can the G-dly soul possibly say that might impress this human person?

Well, first off, you need some background data on your particular human animal. What impresses it? What fascinates it? What’s its language?

This is just amazing. Not only does Rabbi Freeman speak of restructuring, which is foremost on my mind and the thrust of my current desires, but he introduces “language” or metaphor as the means by which we learn how to restructure. There’s a reason why Rabbi Freeman is one of my favorite storytellers, particularly in the area of spirituality, God, and wonder.

The Rabbi goes on to explain that one of his favorite “languages” is technology and programming, so he tends to allow this theme to act as the conduit for communications between his “Godly soul” and his “Animal soul.” We all use different languages for this purpose. In a comment on yesterday’s morning meditation, my friend Joe said:

Practicing when hiking in the mountains, breathing God in and out with each step opens up an awareness of every example of Creation’s beauty I pass on the trail, because I am not off thinking about the future.

I thought of that this morning as I was working out on the Elliptical machine at the gym. I’m trying to improve my cardiac recovery after an aerobic workout and, during the five-minute cooldown, as I was slowing my pace and had the machine set to a lesser intensity, I closed my eyes and spent some time breathing God in and out as I allowed my breathing to slow and deepen. I pondered the wonders of God in ways you might not imagine. I found my thoughts centering around Joe’s recent cancer surgery and how well it went and then around his wife Heidi, who continues to undergo aggressive chemotherapy. I found myself asking where is the miracle of God in Heidi’s suffering? The answer is the wonder of God she has in Joe. Whatever Heidi faces in her battle with cancer, she is not alone. She has God and she has a husband with a Godly soul.

I opened my eyes and my heart rate was lower than I had previously achieved at the end of a workout…not by much, but it was something.

That may not be particularly impressive, but there is something important in what we talk to ourselves about before we actually talk to God. Often, I enter into the presence of God like a raw nerve with this need and that, yelling and screaming about the injustices of the world, and the worry, and the anxiety, and the tragedy of the world, including my world. I’ve heard Pastors and motivational speakers talk about “giving it all to Jesus” and “taking charge of your thoughts” and “letting go of your worries,” but no one ever says how this is to be done. Or if they describe a method, it doesn’t seem to be one that I find particularly workable.

But then, we all respond differently to different languages. I don’t “understand” a lot of the languages being spoken in the religious and spiritual worlds and thus, they mean little or nothing to me. And then there’s the language that’s required to conduct the internal dialog between that which is animal and that which is spiritual within me.

Everyone else’s “good advice” doesn’t work if they’re talking in the wrong language and if the metaphors don’t make a connection (which is why motivational football or fishing stories fall flat with me). Restructuring requires that you have active control over selecting your own language and metaphors, even if they don’t mean anything to anyone else. Find your own storytellers who speak that language and let them speak to you. Take all that and let it be your own voice as you speak to yourself. Then you will have a voice in which you can better speak to God. Not a voice of panic and desperation, but one that, after still and quiet contemplation upon God’s wonders, can speak in small stillness, in praise, in glory, in humility, in a thousand colors and shades that describe who you are, who you are becoming, and who you are perfectly within Him.

There are better days and there are worse days. But on the better days, I can reach that place in the antechamber that exists between the world and God’s Throne and still myself. Then, in a supernatural moment of peace, I reach out for the first rung of the ladder which sits at the bottom of the abyss, and the surroundings begin to brighten. I take the first step in my climb, breathing in God and breathing Him out. The door to the Heavenly court begins to open, I find my mouth, and I must speak.

“Our Father Who is in Heaven…”

“Faith believes that which it is told, because it wants to believe.

Intellect believes that which it understands, because it wants to attain understanding.

Wisdom believes that which is true, because it is true.

It doesn’t have to fit that which faith wishes to believe. It doesn’t await the approval of intellect to say, “This can be understood.”

Wisdom is clear vision, the power to see “that which is” without attempting to fit it into any mold. Wisdom, therefore, is the only channel by which an Infinite G-d may enter.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Faith, Intellect, Wisdom”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

This isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning.

“When you make a world tolerable for yourself, you make a world tolerable for others.”

-Anaïs Nin, French-Cuban author

Pausing Before Engaging God

So we’ve determined that meditation is not just a nice thing, but crucial for every human being with functional grey matter. It’s something that was always considered core to the tefillah experience, at least by those who were into that experience. For some, it meant the mind’s contemplation of the vast beauty of G-d’s creation that their eyes beheld, gazing upon the stars and the wonders of nature. For others, it was the reverie of the worlds of the angels, who stand in constant praise and song. Still others focused upon G-d’s compassion and love for His creatures, and all His kindnesses to us.

So was the practice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they sat in perfect awe beneath the star-speckled sky of the still desert night; so too, the ancient prophets in the Judean hills, strumming musical instruments as they gazed upon the mysteries of heaven and earth, awaiting the vision of prophecy as the morning’s horizon awaits the rising sun; so did the sages of the Talmud, the Bahir and the Zohar lift their souls on mystic journeys through orchards and palaces, chambers and pathways of the spiritual realms, never sure that they could return to their earthly bounds; so too the chassidim were lost in contemplation and the ecstasy of their prayer from early morning until the hours of night.

So now you’re asking: If meditation is so vital to Jewish observance, and if it is such an embedded tradition, why don’t I see it happening anywhere?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Meditation’s Hallway”
from the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series

Good question, and one that can probably be applied to Christians as well. The answer is that some do meditate before prayer but most don’t. I think I know why.

When I got up this morning at around 4 a.m., I was pretty tired, but I knew I needed to get out of bed if I intended to make it to the gym when it opened at 5. My brain is never really “on” when I first wake up, so I had a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and read the “funny papers” online as a slow and casual method of getting my thoughts to engage. I was still telling myself to “wake up” as I drove to the gym.

Forty-five minutes of sweating later, my mind and body were definitely awake. I was conscious enough to “engage” God in prayer, but time is limited. I also had to publish the day’s “morning meditation”, post it on twitter, Facebook, and Google+, eat breakfast, say “hello” to my wife who was also in a state of not really being awake as she got ready for work, shower, get dressed, make lunch, and various other routine morning tasks. Somewhere before 7 a.m., I have time to read from the Bible and to pray, but meditation, as you can see from Rabbi Freeman’s description, is time consuming.

More accurately, it’s time consuming because you have to take your recently reawakened brain and put it in a calm and contemplative place. That’s a little dangerous for me, since I’m libel to start feeling sleepy again.

Don’t worry. I get Rabbi Freeman’s point.

If you ever hire an architect to design a synagogue, you will need to inform him of the two-door rule: The worshipper must first enter into a vestibule that precedes the sanctuary before walking through the doors of the sanctuary itself, as verse in Proverbs goes, “Fortunate is the man who listens to me to watch by my doors day by day, to watch the doorposts of my entrances.” (Talmud Berachot 8a. Tur, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, Levush 90:2. Magen Avraham ibid. Shulchan Aruch Harav 90:19.)

The first door, explains Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch in his “Booklet on Tefillah,” (Kuntres Hatefillah, siman 11) is the door in from the street. You first need to leave the confusion of the world outside and empty your mind of all worldly concerns, power down your cellphone, spend a few moments to gain calm and focus. As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would say (Avot 1:17), “All my life, I grew up among the sages and I did not find anything better for a person than quietness.”

Not, however, to get stuck in the hallway. Despite the common misconception, that’s not the goal of meditation. It’s not a path to placid bliss, transcendentally oblivious to the temporal world. Serenity is not a goal in itself. Calmness and stillness provide a healthy frame of mind from which to begin meditating, praying, struggling to grow and change—to enter door #2. But not to simply bathe and soak in. As Adin Steinsaltz once put it bluntly: serenity is death, life is struggle.

You prepare yourself in the hallway, then you enter the Sanctuary of God. Life is struggle. Apparently, so is prayer. Maybe that means, that prayer is also life. It makes sense, since I struggle with both.

But life is busy. I’ve mentioned before that all of the details Rabbi Freeman presents as relevant to preparing to enter your day are numerous, and most folks who have a regular job and who live with a family might not be able to incorporate everything he suggests.

Getting back to my original metaphor, here I sit at the bottom of the abyss, attempting to practice being still, (I’m not doing a very good job) and contemplating that ladder God has put down in the hole with me. The problem is, getting my mind to be still enough to do a good job at contemplation. Whenever I try to shut out the bedlam of life around me, the bedlam of life inside me takes over. Where do I go from here?

When the soul awakens, it descends like a fire from heaven.

In a moment of surprise, we discover something so powerful, so beyond our persona, we cannot believe it is a part of us.

In truth, we are a part of it.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Fire From Heaven”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

There’s only one more part of Rabbi Freeman’s series on Jewish prayer, which I’ll present tomorrow. But what then…what then?

Considering Meditation

The cruel facts are that to do what a Jew has got to do, you must think. Not just think as in “If apples are $2/lb., then two pounds are gonna cost me $4.” I mean think as in contemplate, cogitate, ponder, fire up your cerebral cortex into high gear.

That was Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda’s point. Rabbi Bachya was a Jewish sage of 11th century Spain. He noted that many authors write about what a Jew is supposed to do and speak—what he calls “duties of the external limbs”—but none write about the “duties of the heart.” He penned a classic work by that name that is still studied to this day. In his introduction, he provides his list of some of the Torah obligations that involve mind and heart. Among them, those that are relevant to deep, contemplation—which he recommends throughout the book…

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Is Meditation Kosher?”
from the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series

With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
Psalm 119:13-16

Meditation can seem like it’s some sort of far out contemplative state associated with a far eastern religious practice, but both Judaism and Christianity have a history of associating meditation and prayer. I Googled “should a Christian meditate” and got a ton of search results, too numerous for me to review, especially within the context of a single “morning meditation” (Gee, there’s that word, again). I picked the first one available which is from BibleStudyGuide.org:

At first thought, meditation is something that we may believe is reserved for strange, far-out cult members. But, Christians are to spend time in meditation. The meditation of Christians is much different than cult meditation which may use a mantra. Webster defines meditate as “1: to focus ones thoughts on: reflection or ponder over 2: to plan or project in the mind … : to engage in contemplation or reflection.” The greek word logizomai is translated various ways, but is translated meditate (NKJ) and think (KJ) in Phil. 4:8. Vines says of logizomai in Phil. 4:8 “it signifies ‘make those things the subject of your thoughtful consideration,’ or ‘carefully reflect on them.'”

Paul exhorts brethren to carefully consider, reflect, ponder, meditate on those things which are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy. He says: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, what ever things are lovely, what ever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8). In other words, Christians are to immerse their thoughts in everything that is good and spiritual in the Lord.

I have no idea how accurate all that is relative to mainstream Christian thought, but it seems to be enough, on the surface, to justify Christian meditation, even as Rabbi Freeman supports Jewish meditation associated with prayer. We also see, from my quote of David in Psalm 119, that meditation upon the acts of God pre-dates the first Temple in Jerusalem, so it enjoys a very long tradition among the chosen people of God.

But what exactly is meditation, how do we employ it in terms of prayer, and how are we to consider God and ourselves through this process? In Jewish thought, it has to do with the concept of “knowing.”

Note, both in Maimonides’ language and in Bachya, the knowing. Not “to know,” but actively, perpetually going about knowing. There’s a difference between knowledge and knowing. You can stop knowing and still have knowledge. Knowledge is something you have. Knowing is something you do.

But what does that mean? How do we actively participate in the process of “knowing” God versus having “knowledge” of God. For a Jew, it has to do with meditation and obedience to the first five positive and the first five negative commandments of the Rambam’s 613 mitzvot.

Here’s an example from Rabbi Freeman’s article:

# Mitzvah Source Text Source
+1 Knowing that there is G‑d. I am G-d your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d. Exodus 20:2; Deut. 5:6
-1 Knowing that there is no power other than G-d. You shall have no other gods besides me. Exodus 20:3; Deut. 20:4
+2 Affirming G-d’s oneness. Hear O Israel, the G-d is our G-d, the G-d is one. Deut. 6:4
+3 Loving G-d. You shall love G-d your G-d with all your heart… Deut. 6:5
+4 Revering G-d. You shall revere G-d Deut. 6:13
+5 Serving G-d with your heart (i.e. prayer) You shall serve G-d your G-d.…and to serve Him with all your heart” Exodus 23:25; Deut. 11:13

According to Rabbi Freeman, the process of “knowing” as well as “affirming,” “loving,” and “revering” God requires that we meditate upon Him. But that still doesn’t tell us what it means, only why a Jew must meditate; in order to obey the Torah of God. There’s also the problem of loving and revering. How can a person be commanded to love? You either love or you don’t. You can’t turn the process of loving on and off like a light switch. You can decide to meditate upon God, but can you decide upon command to also love Him?

What is the path to love and reverence of G-d? Meditate on His actions and on His wonderful and vast creations and you will become aware of His endless and unlimited wisdom. Immediately you will come to love, praise and glorify G‑d with great desire to know His great name.

—Rambam (Maimonides), Foundations of Torah 2:2

According to Rambam, you can learn to love God “on command” … by meditating. Think of it the way you think about someone you love romantically. Usually, in the early days of a relationship, you can’t keep your mind of the other person. If you are apart for any reason, you think about them, remember your last conversation, imagine the way the person looked the last time you saw them, and try to conjure up the sound of their voice. In a way, you “meditate” upon them and “all their works” (things that they did). Does this not contribute to our active “knowing” of the person and our progression of “loving” them? Is that so different than David meditating on all the works and wonders of God?

But the last positive commandment is to “serve” God. What does meditating upon God have to do with serving Him? In Judaism, “serving” God is traced back to the duties of the Priests in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, when performing various services, including the sacrifices. After the destruction of Herod’s Temple by the Romans, much of the concept of the Temple service was translated into prayer. To serve God is to pray to God.

But prayer, in Judaism, isn’t just the act of “talking to God.” Especially in liturgical prayer, a Jew is to contemplate on, concentrate on, and meditate upon, the process of prayer, right down to the individual words involved in the act of praying. This sounds a lot like a sort of meditation during prayer, but meditation is also involved in the Jewish person preparing themselves for prayer, prior the act of Tefillah.

Don’t begin tefillah until you have achieved koved rosh. The fervent ones of old [“chassidim harishonim”] would pause for an hour before tefillah, so that they could focus their hearts on their Father in heaven.

—Talmud Berachot, 30b

Before tefillah, ponder matters of the majesty of the exalted G‑d and of the smallness of humankind. Remove all human pleasures from your heart.

—R’ Moshe Isserles, ibid.

Meditation then, is a state of preparation, wherein you make yourself ready to enter into the presence of God in His realm. You don’t just “drop in” on God (although there are times when we need Him in a very immediate sense). You treat God with awe, dignity, and respect. You prepare yourself as if you are preparing for an extremely important encounter, by making your mind and your emotions ready for the experience. All this is fine for Rabbi Freeman’s Jewish audience, but is anything he’s talking about applicable to the Christian?

I haven’t cited anything wild and kabbalistic, esoteric or arcane (don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon). Just plain Judaism, the stuff that’s meant for every Jew—and wouldn’t hurt for all the rest of humanity as well.

That seems to be a pretty straightforward answer, though if any readers found some of the Jewish concepts in this blogpost challenging, it may be a bit daunting to discover that nothing “wild and kabbalistic, esoteric or arcane” was involved. Not only is a period of contemplation and preparation required for the Jew, but it’s recommended for anyone who is about to enter the Throne room of the King of the Universe.

But how do you do that? I’ll save the answer for next time.

It has to come from the core, but we are not masters over that place.

We can barely master our wardrobe—our conscious thought, our words to others, what our hands and feet are doing. Never mind the hidden things within.

But we can do this: We can wash our clothes and bathe our skin in pure waters. Meaning: we can focus our thoughts, guide our words and clean up our act.

Once scrubbed enough that light can pass through, we await the moment when the core awakens.

This is what Moses told his people on their last day together: “The hidden things belong to G‑d. But the obvious is for us and our children forever, to do what needs to be done.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Core”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson