Tag Archives: morning

Seeking Wonder in the Hole of a Bagel

Consider the common association between Jews and bagels for breakfast.

Myself, I’m a quinoa-and-avocado man. Nevertheless, mentally constructing a scene in which I invite my Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Daoist friends to drop by for breakfast, my paranoid Jewish soul hears them translating, “That means bagels and cream cheese.” What does chewy bread with a hole in the middle have to do with being Jewish? And with Jewish breakfast in particular?

It took me years, but I think I have the answer:

A Jew is meant to start the day with a hole in the middle.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Gratefulness and the Holey Bagel”
from the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series

What does a hole in the middle of the bagel teach us about starting out our day? Actually, quite a bit when you examine the metaphor. Recall that when we wake up each morning (at least according to Rabbi Freeman), we first bless God for our very existence. But then what? What do we have once we know we’re alive.

At first, nothing.

…Now, the channel for receiving joy from above is a sense of nothingness [original: bitul—trans.] before your Creator. Wherever there is that nothingness, joy shines from above. And wherever there is a keen feeling of self, there is no joy.

As the verse says, “The humble will increase joy in G-d.” (Avot 4:1) So it seems that humility and joy are related. It’s the humble in particular that can bring joy to G-d.

Superficially, this is difficult to understand. Humility is a sense of lowliness and lack of self worth, while joy implies an uplifted spirit and a sense of self-esteem. If so, how could humility be a receiving channel for joy?

The answer is that humility is not the kind of lowliness that comes out of low self worth, in which a person finds nothing good about himself or that he is, G-d forbid, on a path that isn’t good. Rather the lowliness of humility is simply because he doesn’t feel himself so much. He doesn’t consider himself to be such a “somebody,” despite all the good that he has. Even though he is good and upright in Torah and mitzvahs and in his service of G-d with self-sacrifice, he is not so important in his eyes that he should be considered to have attained some certain spiritual level because of all this.

-Translation by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Humility and Happiness”
From the teachings of Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch

In his bagel article, Rabbi Freeman says, “when you start with nothing, anything is fantastic.” It’s pretty difficult to be disappointed with how your day has started if it started out with nothing. After nothing, whatever God provides is something fantastic, even if it’s just the hole in the middle of your bagel.

But since you can’t have the hole without the bagel, and (at least in my opinion) you can’t have the bagel without some cream cheese (lox would be nice, too), not only do you wake up and discover you are alive, but you find that God has provided breakfast, too!

The Lord upholds all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand;
you satisfy the desire of every living thing. Psalm 145:14-16 (ESV)

I know someone reading this will say that there are so many who are alive and who wake up, but they have no food. Their children cry themselves to sleep at night because their bellies are empty. Am I being insensitive to the hungry and the starving? What should they be grateful for?

I’m not going to deliver some hollow religious platitude for a suffering people while I have just finished my own breakfast, but I will say that there’s a reason we have been commanded to feed the hungry. (Proverbs 28:27, Isaiah 58:10, Matthew 25:35, Romans 12:20, James 2:14-18) A man to blesses God for his “daily bread” but who does not obey the same God’s command to feed others has a full stomach, but an empty soul.

But even in blessing God for turning our “nothing” into “something,” and even in feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, we should be mindful of who we are…and who we aren’t.

You see, someone who has that essential sense of nothingness doesn’t make a big deal out of any of his accomplishments. He simply doesn’t notice himself so much, so therefore he doesn’t think about his importance in any matter.

Especially when he contemplates that everything good he has—his faith, his love for G-d—none of it is his own achievement, through his own cognizance. Rather it is an inheritance from Abraham our father who was the first believer and the head of all those who believe.

-from Humility and Happiness

Praying with tefillinIt is said that King David was divinely inspired to institute the saying of 100 blessings (at a minimum) to God each day by every Jew. To a Christian, this may seem excessive or even kind of crazy. Who has time to drop everything they’re doing in the middle of each busy day to say a blessing to God? How can you stop what you’re doing 100 times or more each day to bless God for what He has done for you and the world? Was King David crazy to even suggest it? Am I crazy to suggest it to you…or to me?

Christians tend to think of these sorts of “suggestions” as “being under the Law,” as a burden, as opposing the grace of Jesus Christ who gives us boundless freedom from religious obligation and servitude. Why should a believer have to bless God for each and every thing He has done? Isn’t that slavery?

But what am I saying?

Does being a Christian mean we shouldn’t be thankful to God for all He has given us? Does it mean we shouldn’t take notice in the middle of our busy day, that God has given us food to eat, gainful employment, a loving family, solid ground to walk upon, clothes to wear, strength when we’re weary, a soul placed within us, freedom from captivity…?

In fact, those are just some of the blessings that Jews typically recite from their prayer books each morning. There are many commandments a Jew has to say a short blessing, when witnessing a miracle, when seeing a rainbow, when receiving new clothes, many, many things. In this, a Jew is always aware that in every single event and detail of every single hour of every single day, God is there. There is nothing in the life of a Jew where God is not present and active.

So why would it be so bad if a Christian were to acknowledge God in the same way? Is He not also actively present in our lives as well?

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. –Matthew 6:25-33 (ESV)

According to Jesus, God is indeed present in the life of the Christian as well as the Jew, at least if we can apply his teaching to his Jewish disciples to the rest of us (and I think we can).

If we can look at each event in our day and capture it with a sense of wonder, how much easier it would be to appreciate each day we are given, rather than seeing only the burdens it may contain.

WonderEver watch an infant play with his toes? A toddler delighting in his newfound ability to walk? A youngster who has just discovered the butterfly? That’s the sense of perpetual wonder we’re trying to achieve every morning.

“We have found the elixir of eternal youth,” a wise man once said, “and it is immaturity.”

All day long, strive to be an adult. At the time of prayer, return to that essential child within. Start with the empty hole of the bagel and work outwards.

-from Gratefulness and the Holey Bagel

Does God peek at us through the hole in the middle of our breakfast bagel, considering us with as much wonder as we consider Him?

Once in a while, He seems to be peeking through the latticework of our world, filling the day with light.

But then there are times He hides His face behind a thick wall, and we are confused.

We cry out to Him, loudly, for He must be far away.

He is not far away. For the latticework is His holy hand, and the walls themselves are sustained by His word.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Hiding Behind His Hand”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Once we awake and realize we have our life but nothing else, we start being aware of what God has also provided; our breakfast, our clothes, and whatever else we discover in our day. Then we begin finding the wonder of God everywhere.

I Will Awake the Dawn!

My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is great above the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! That your beloved ones may be delivered, give salvation by your right hand and answer me!

Psalm 108:1-6 (ESV)

Wake up by your own body clock, before the alarm. King David said, “I will wake the morning”—not that the morning woke him. You see, if you are only awake because it is morning, you are not really awake—you are sleepwalking. If it is morning because you are awake, however, then you are truly awake and in control.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“How to Get Out of Bed…and really mean it”
from the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series

I hadn’t noticed that David said, “I will awake the dawn” before. I think most of us, when we first get up, are “sleepwalking” for some period of time, as Rabbi Freeman describes. We are waiting for morning, or our first cup of coffee, to wake us up. In his article on getting out of bed from which I’m quoting, Rabbi Freeman provides rather detailed instructions on what to do, from the first moment you realize you’re awake, through the process of entering into morning prayer. These steps are traditional for a religious Jew and so may not be particularly adaptable for the Christian.

On the other hand, there may be a thing or two we can take into our own morning routine as we prepare to greet our Creator.

As I previously mentioned, the first thing a Jew does after waking up is to recite the Modeh Ani blessing, thanking God for returning his soul to him and restoring his life. Immediately afterwards comes the Netilat Yadayim or the traditional handwashing, followed by other specific routines to prepare for prayer.

You can read Rabbi Freeman’s article in full at the links I’ve already provided, so I won’t go into a step-by-step description of the awakening process of a Jew preparing for prayer. Frankly, I don’t believe most of it specifically applies to the Christian and that these are rituals uniquely Jewish in nature.

However, there are a few things we might want to pay attention to, especially activities that a Jew should avoid prior to tefillah (prayer):

  • Don’t eat a meal.
    Eat what you need to focus your mind in tefillah. Maybe that’s just a hot drink. Maybe a light snack. But stop there. First connect your soul, then feed the body.
  • Don’t check the news.
    Sure it’s important to know what’s going on in the world. Starting from the event of the greatest, earth-shaking import. And that is that you are about to talk to the Creator of the Universe. Keep your head clear. You’ll need it.
  • Don’t visit a friend.
    This is a classic, mentioned in Talmud. You’re about to greet your Maker, so it’s not good protocol to visit someone else first. If you do see someone you haven’t seen for a while, the custom is to not say, “Shalom Aleichem” or even “Shalom”. Shalom (peace) is a name of G-d, so we don’t use it for anyone else until we’ve spoken with Him personally. “Good morning, how are you?” is fine.
  • Don’t check your email or otherwise take care of business.
    Getting tough? Consider each day to be like a mini-week, and the late night and early morning comprise the mini-Shabbat.
  • Don’t get into distracting conversations.
    You don’t have to be rude. But once those conversations start, there’s no end. When you try to put your head into meditation before tefillah, everything you heard and said that morning keeps rattling around in your head. Why add noise, when it’s already so hard to quiet down the mind?

Do you pray in the morning before launching into your day? I must admit that I don’t do so very often. I have a morning routine, but while it contains time to read from the Psalms and the Gospels, it doesn’t accommodate itself to a specific and formal prayer time. I’m not saying that I’m right in this, only that I don’t feel really good about formal prayer while I’m still in my PJs or unshowered, and by the time I take a shower, it’s time to zoom out the door to work.

Would my day go better if I read from the Bible and regularly prayed in a formal manner to God? I can only assume it would. So why don’t I?

Habit, I suppose. Here’s what a typical (actually ideal) morning looks like for me during the week.

  • Wake up and recite Modeh Ani.
  • Use the bathroom.
  • Make coffee and drink a glass of water while I’m waiting.
  • Read various comic strips on the computer which helps my brain wake up.
  • Finish one cup of coffee and one glass of water and then (if I’m very good) head off to they gym.
  • Return home after the gym, drink more water, and publish the day’s “morning mediation” blog.
  • Eat breakfast.
  • Shower, brush my teeth, and shave.
  • Read from the Bible, usually a page of Psalms and a chapter from the Gospels.
  • Pack my lunch for the day and head out the door.

Believe it or not, including the workout at the gym, that covers from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. and I make it to work by around 7:30 a.m. depending on traffic.

Pouring waterDoesn’t sound much like how Rabbi Freeman describes a morning for a traditional religious Jew.

I hate to make this sound dry, but in many ways, holiness is a habit. Like many people, I tend to do the same things each morning when I get up as a matter of routine, not because it’s better or worse than any other way of waking up. I suppose there are some very diligent Christians and Jews who have extremely disciplined morning routines that are infused with the presence of God. There may also be a large number of Christians and Jews who have a routine that is more or less like mine.

A Christian tends to think of prayer life, like most other aspects of the Christian lifestyle, as “free,” that is, you can pray pretty much any time you’d like. This is true and it’s true in Judaism as well. However, there is also a formal aspect to Jewish prayer that dictates specific times when one is to pray (ideally with a minyan) in a ritual manner. The morning prayer service is called Shacharit and is one of the three times a day a Jew is commanded to enter into prayer.

I mentioned in my last morning meditation that God desires we voluntarily enter into a relationship with Him, and this is true. However, I also mentioned that for the Jew, there is a certain set of connections, rituals, and traditions that are part and parcel of being a Jew. There is a “belonging” and a “commandedness” to being a Jew that few Christians truly understand. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, only that it is a Jewish thing.

A few months ago, I wrote that the Roman Centurion Cornelius (see Acts 10) seemed to have adopted the Jewish tradition of fixed prayers, probably because having come to faith in the God of Israel, it was the only available model for his prayers. This suggests that fixed times of prayer are not forbidden to the Christian, even though they are not formally commanded of us by God.

I can find all kinds of reasons why I should pray in the morning, but it is entirely up to me to choose to initiate such prayer or to disregard it. To incorporate morning prayer as a daily routine, I will need to change my habits which, as I’m sure you’re aware (assuming you have habits, too) is easier said than done.

But having admitted a need to improve certain areas of my life, which includes a more intimate relationship with God, what else can I do but either take God seriously or discard His presence?

When I imagine other Christians or anyone who shares a faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I imagine them in the morning, entering into deep and meditative periods of prayer with God. But that’s my imagination and it can be used to fuel a sense of guilt, because I don’t have such a time in my morning, admittedly by choice. On the other hand, I’ve heard numerous Christians say they “share” their first cup of coffee with Jesus, praying to him in the morning (but even Jesus said we are only to pray to God the Father) as if they were talking to a neighbor or acquaintance sitting around the kitchen table.

I apologize if this sounds offensive, but I’ve always been put off by that image. One does not approach the throne of the King with a cup of coffee in one hand and a folding chair in another, sit down next to His Throne, and then address the King of the Universe in the same way as you’d chit chat with a casual acquaintance.

I think that’s one of the reasons I hesitate to pray in the morning. When am I really prepared to enter into the presence of the King? When am I clean enough? How should my hair be combed? Should I be hungry or full? Should I be sleepy or well “caffeinated?”

Is it just my own “hang up” that I think morning prayer or any formal, regular prayer should contain a sense of formality, respect, and awe of God? Is this something that only the Jews have retained and that the church has tossed in the gutter, in favor of a casual dip into the shallow pools of grace and freedom?

But I’ll never be “good enough” to actually enter into the august and majestic Throne room of the Almighty and All-encompassing King of Everything. How do you even do that? Is that why Christians “dumb down” prayer for the most part? Should I emulate the Jewish “style” even though I’m not a Jew, for lack of any better model?

I’m tossing this question out to you readers. What do you think?

You might think that the more lowly the created being, the lower the divine spark it contains.

Just the opposite: Only the highest of sparks could descend to the lowest of places and retain their power to sustain such an existence.

That is why the deepest truths are so often found in the darkest of places.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Taller They Are…”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

How can I wake up the dawn?

Torah of the Night

In the nightThe Gemara extrapolates from the verse – “from night until morning” – that there is no other service that is performed specifically at night other than the Menorah. Ben Yehoyada suggests that the reason the service of the Menorah is specifically at night is that the Menorah alludes to Torah and the primary time to study Torah is at night when a person’s mind is clear and he is free of his daily responsibilities. This follows Chazal’s statement in Eruvin (65a) that the night was created for Torah study. This concept is also recorded in Shulchan Aruch where he writes that one must be more careful with the learning that he does at night than the learning that he does during the day. Mishnah Berurah further elaborates on the importance and value of studying Torah at night and writes that when Torah scholars study Torah at night it is considered as though they are performing the service of the Bais Hamikdash. Furthermore, the Divine Presence stands opposite those who study Torah at night.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Studying Torah at night”
Menachos 89

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn you thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night

Music of the Night
from “Phantom of the Opera”
by Andrew Lloyd Webber

If you consider “night” to be any time the sun isn’t shining in the sky, then this teaching certainly fits onto the foundation upon which I laid this blog and what Rabbi Tzvi Freeman at Chabad.org presents here:

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

A continuation of the commentary of Menachos 89 seems to support this idea, which works well for me as an early riser.

Mishnah Berurah writes that according to Kabbalists the primary time for Torah study is from chatzos until the onset of the morning. Shulchan Aruch HaRav writes that at the very least one should arise before morning to learn for some period of time at the end of the night.

Other Poskim support the opposite viewpoint, advocating for Torah study in the evening and then reciting the Tikun Chatzos before retiring. From an outsider’s perspective, it might be the difference between being a morning person and a night person.

For me, it’s helpful to start the day pondering God. Each day in an ordinary work week has its fair share of challenges and disappointments and, like a house, how or if it will stand depends on the solidity of the foundation. To build on “the Rock”, so to speak, means your “house” has a better chance of weathering storms. I suppose that’s why I created “Morning Meditations” rather than “Evening Meditations”.

ShavuotAt sundown this evening, the festival of Shavuot begins (at the end of the Omer count), which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Sinai. It is one of two times of year (the other is Simchat Torah) where God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people is specifically recognized and celebrated.

Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post regarding my small understanding of the Torah. To continue from that beginning, the Torah is the illustrative force in the life of the Jewish people and it defines them as who they are, why they exist, and their specialness in the eyes of God. Since the days of Moses, “the Torah was to go forth from Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem” (paraphrasing Micah 4:2) and even traditional Jewish sages admit that Christianity has been one vehicle by which the principles and teachings of God have reached an unbelieving world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Shavuot and Pentecost, the observance of the giving of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s disciples in Jerusalem, happen on the same day.

This should be a night of joyous celebration as we let ourselves fully realize how God has abundantly reached out to humanity with His love, His wisdom, and His mercy. Both Jew and Christian can consider themselves greatly blessed by all that God has done for them; what God has done for us all.

But my greatest joy is not in singing or eating or in partaking of any other outward celebration with people, but in arising early each morning, before the sun begins to lighten the eastern sky, and alone in the silence, opening the pages of the Bible, delaying the start of day for a tiny march of minutes, while I pray, thank God, and then meditate upon His Word, letting it illuminate the darkness of the night.

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo. Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Penetrating Wisdom”

Abundant is Your Faithfulness

This blog has been a long time in the making, perhaps as long as two years. I’ve been searching for something. I’ve been looking for a road. I’ve been staring into the dark abyss looking for even the faintest glimmer of light. After two long years, I think I’ve found it and so, to share my tiny light in the darkness, I’ve created this blog.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman said something recently at Chabad.org that resulted in my finally finding the right name and letting me launch this weblog.

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

Every morning when I wake up, before I get out of bed, I silently recite a blessing to God, thanking Him for returning my soul to me. While I don’t usually think that I might “die before I wake” as I go to sleep, I am aware that my life is in the hands of God; my well-being depends on His chesed and His providence. In that sense each new day, when I become aware that I’m still here, is a gift from God.

I’m going through a transition and learning to find my faith. I have gone through the past year searching for the path I must walk and now I believe I am walking on it. The path isn’t always easy and much of the time, it’s shrouded in twilight. Although I walk with God, there are times when I feel that I’m totally alone in the dark. Yet as Rabbi Freeman said, I can also let myself be inspired, allow God to illuminate me, and then become my own light casting away the darkness.

In the days and weeks ahead, I’m going to pursue the journey of bringing light into the darkness, may it be the will of God.

I invite you to join me and we can become aware of each new day and the promise it brings.

“I gratefully thank You, living and existing King
for restoring my soul to me with compassion.
Abundant is your faithfulness.”

Blessing Upon Arising in the Morning