Tag: Shema

Four Favorite Jewish Spiritual Practices

Person: “Rabbi, what can I do to make my days feel more meaningful?”

Rabbi: “Try some mitzvot and Jewish spiritual practices.”

What’s a spiritual practice?
A spiritual practice refers to regular, purposeful actions we do in order to transform our lives from everyday regularity and habit into sacred, meaningful moments. Whether chosen from the 613 mitzvot (Jewish obligations) of Torah or from other customs passed down, spiritual practices can uplift and inspire.

Jewish mitzvot direct us to live lives infused with meaning and value. Our blessings reveal the underlying message of our mitzvot (religious commandments), when we say asher kiddishanu b’mitzvotavwho makes us HOLY through Jewish obligations. We do Jewish actions in the hope that they will lead us to holy, spiritual living.

Four Favorite Jewish Spiritual Practices:

1.  Counting 3 Blessings
In a notebook or on a smartphone, keep a running list each night of three experiences or moments daily for which you are thankful. If you miss a day or two, don’t sweat it. Start again on the current day.

2.  Bedtime Shema and Hashkiveinu
Spend three minutes (that is all it takes) reaffirming the oneness of existence and the hope for a safe sleep by reciting or singing these prayers. Read about the bedtime Shema, then say the prayers in Hebrew and listen to them in song.

3.  Morning Modeh Ani
Upon waking, recite a morning meditation giving thanks for your life and soul. Read the prayer in Hebrew and listen to it in song.

Modeh Ani (for a male) OR Modah Ani (for a female)
L’fanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, sheh-heh-cheh-zartee neesh-ma-tee, b’chemla rabbah emunah-teh-cha.

Poetic Translation: Thankful am I in your Presence,
Spirit who lives and endures,
for You have returned to me my soul with compassion.
Abundant is your faith!

4.  Midday Mincha: “Mincha” refers to the afternoon prayers. Set an alarm for sometime between 2-4 pm. When the alarm sounds, turn away from your computer, your phone, and your responsibilities. For 3-5 minutes, just sit quietly doing nothing but just “being.” Perhaps get out of your chair and sit on a couch or another place in the office. Perhaps close your eyes.

What are your favorite spiritual practices that can make your day more meaningful?

Lisa Friedman on Shema

Recently, I invited congregants to reflect on what it means to them to recite the Shema. Many spoke about their connections to the Holy One.

One involved young person – a Congregation Or Ami member, Madricha (Teaching assistant), and Camp Newman camper – offered some unique, thought-provoking ideas. For her, it seems, Shema connects her to the Jewish community.

Lisa Friedman writes:

When I hear or recite the Shema, I think about Camp Newman. At camp, we recite the Shema at least twice a day, during afternoon t’fillah and nightly siyum. We experiment with the prayer, keeping our eyes opened or sitting down sometimes. We talk about what this prayer means to us and what we think about when we recite it. When I recite the Shema, I think about how lucky I am to be a free Jew and be able to pray to G-d. I also think of the soldiers in the IDF, fighting for our freedom, reciting the same prayer as I am. I am very grateful to be able to pray and recite the Shema beside my family and friends here at Congregation Or Ami. 

What does reciting the Shema lead you to think about?  Do tell.  

How Reciting Shema Can Save a Kid’s Life

Shema. More than a prayer, it is a bold theological statement. More than a verse from Torah, it is an idea which goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew. The Shema holds a power that is mystical.

A Story 
…about an incident at the San Diego airport. A police officer approached a woman and the four- or five-year-old girl standing beside her. Said the police officer, “I am sorry to bother you, but a four-and-a-half year old girl has disappeared. The description given by her parents very much fits this girl – blonde, blue eyes, curly hair, wearing a red dress and black shoes. I don’t want to alarm you, but I am going to have to ask you some questions to prove that this little girl is really yours, that she isn’t the girl who is missing.”

What a horrible situation! Every parent’s nightmare. This woman had to prove that her daughter was really her daughter. Privately, the police officer asked the woman’s name, address, hometown and husband’s name. Then he said to the little girl, “What’s your name?” “Mary,” she answered. “What’s your last name?” Silence. “Well, where do you live?” “At home.” “Do you know the name of your city?” “Nope.” “What’s your father’s name?” he asked. “Daddy.” “What does he do?” “He goes to work.”

Not getting anywhere with the little girl, the police officer asked the woman if she had any pictures of the little girl in her wallet, or pictures of her husband that the little girl might recognize. She hadn’t any. He asked to see the plane tickets, but they were flying on standby, and besides, they had different last names.

Shema: One Way to Prove Your Child is Actually Your Child 
So what would you do? How would you prove that your child is actually your child? How would you prove that the little girl or boy with you isn’t really someone else’s child whom you’ve kidnapped? Or worse, that your missing child is actually your child? Frightening, isn’t it?

Eventually, the mother offered the police officer a way to prove that the child was hers. She said, “Rachel, tell the police officer what we say each night before we go to bed.” And little four-and-a-half-year-old Rachel answered, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad.” And the mother smiled widely as the police officer confirmed that this is just what the mother predicted that little Rachel would answer.

The Power of Shema to Save
Such is the power of Shema to save. Whether bonding a child to her parent, or a believer to his God, Shema is a powerful prayer. With my own eyes, I have seen the words of Shema calm a dying woman in her final days. I have witnessed Shema give strength to a man frightened about the future. Words, which evoke the calming presence of a hundred generations gone by, connect us in the present to that Force which unifies all existence.

This week and next, I am spending some time studying about and meditating on the Shema.

Question for You to Ponder
What do you think about when you recite or hear the Shema?

Breathing Through God

Did you know that when you breathe you are connecting to God? Or you could be if you were aware of what you were doing. Really.

As part of our experimental Jewish Spiritual Journey Facebook Group, one participant asked me, “Does the word SHEMA have something to do with our breath?” I love the question. Here’s how I answered him:

Shema absolutely has to do with the breathe because it twice invokes the name we call God, the four letter name Yud Hey Vav Hey which we often pronounce as Adonai. Adonai is just a euphemism for Yud Hey Vav Hey, meaning “my Lord”. My Lord was once considered a very high honorific in human society, thus that’s what we used to call God (today we would choose something like “Celestial CEO”).

But this four letter name of God Yud Hey Vav Hey is really unpronounceable, as it consists of four expulsions of breath from the mouth or throat. Yud occurs back where the hanging thing in the back of your throat is. There is no sound unless combined with a vowel. Try making a “y” sound without a vowel attached. Hey, twice appearing is just the expulsion of breath through the open throat. Unless accompanied by a vowel, it just is the unsounding sound of breath release. Finally, Vav stands for the “O” or “OO”, neither of which really make a sound beyond the stop and start of the breath in the mouth.

So when we twice say Yud Hey Vav Hey during the Shema, we are saying that the Breathe that makes no sound IS God, or at least where God resides. God resides in the breathe. God is the breath.

That breath is echad, one, the oneness or unity that unites all life and all creation.

So I ask all of you: Do you connect spirituality and/or breathing with Shema? Do you find yourself more spiritual when you are connected to your breath or breathing?

BTW: Our Jewish Spirituality Journey Facebook group is a closed group (meaning the answers do not appear in the Facebook pages of non-participants). Anyone can join the discussion. Just email Rabbi Paul Kipnes and ask for me to add you to the group. Of course, you have to Facebook Friend me first. Join in. We have already had some great discussions.

Omer Day 11: Stop Doing, and Just Continue “Being”

Today is the 11th day of the Omer, that is 1 week and 4 days.
Today is also the day I write my 613th post on this blog. It feels like a mitzvah! A time to pause and reflect:

Shabbat Shalom.

  • Can you be at one with the universe?
  • Can you stop doing and just continue being?

Shema, a central prayer recited twice daily, concludes Adonai Echad.

Some teach that this means God is one, that God is not two like the ancient Zoroastrians believed. And God is not three, like we Jews understand the Christian Trinity to really express (Father, Son, Holy Ghost equal three for Jews). And God is not many, like the ancient Greeks and the contemporary Wiccans believe.  All this is true for Jews.

I prefer to translate Adonai Echad as God alone, following our Reform Movement siddur (prayer book), Mishkan Tefilah. This teaches multiple significant lessons:

  • There is nothing but God. Ain Sof, as the Kabbalists express, God has no end. Everything is within God. Separation is just a way we comprehend the world. Unreal but effective. So we are part of the Oneness of the Holy One.
  • Everything is connected to everything else. If God alone means everything is God, and I am within God and You are within God, then we are connected within God. It means that I am connected also with those I do not know, those I have never met and those who exist across the world and across our city. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that the world exists within the invisible lines of connection.
  • If I want to experience holiness, sometimes I should just stop acting on and in the world and just be. When I just focus on being, I might catch a glimpse, a sense, a shadow, of the is-ism of Adonai Echad. I might truly recognize that I am part of that oneness.

It is hard to do when one is running and doing. So try this. It is something I learned at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Sit comfortably, quietly close your eyes, and just breathe. Focus on the breath. When thoughts come into your mind, categorize them as pleasant or unpleasant. If pleasant, push them, in your mind’s eye, to the left. If unpleasant, push them to the right. Then return to focus on the breathing.

You might find, somewhere in there, that you sense the eternality of the breathe, that just in being you exist in a most profound form.

At that moment, you just might have experienced the oneness of holiness, the oneness of the Holy One.

For more mediations on living on the journey, take a look at Seeking Words Where There are None, the Omer blog of Rabbi Ari Margolis, a former Congregation Or Ami summer rabbinic intern. It is well worth the time.