Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Notes from the Book Launch

Thank you everyone who came to the book launch yesterday for Posts Along the Way and made the event the success that it was, and thank you especially to Danny Levine and the staff at Levine Judaica for hosting the event. I had to keep my remarks after Minchah brief because many people had to get back to work. I'd like to post here everything that I wanted to say. I'm also including a few pictures of the event. (Picture of me and Danny Levine)

The Gemara (Berakhos 48a) tells a story about Abayei and Rava when they were young children. They recited a blessing and Rabah, an adult, asked the boys if they knew to whom they were saying the blessing. They responded, "To God." He then asked where God resides. The young Rava pointed to the ceiling and the young Abayei then went outdoors and pointed to the sky. (Note that neither pointed up, up, down, down, right, left, and all around.) Rabah was so impressed that he said these two young boys would grow up to be great scholars, and so they did.

Click here for moreThis story clearly has more to it than its superficial meaning. What was so great about saying that God is in heaven? And what did Abayei add to Rava's answer by going outdoors? Was he really implying that Rava thought God was in the ceiling? We can suggest that Rava was not just saying that God is in the ceiling or even in outer space, but that God is above us; He is not in the physical world but above it, in the metaphysical world, the spiritual plane. However, we can still point to Him. We still have an ability to relate with and connect to God despite being in different planes of existence.

Abayei added something important. Yes, we can connect to God, but not by staying where we are. In order to connect to God we need to act. We need to prepare ourselves intellectually and emotionally. We must somehow remove ourselves from our mundane concerns and momentarily take ourselves to a different place where we can focus on the spiritual. For example, before we pray we must recite words of Torah. That is why Minchah begins with Ashrei and only afterward proceeds to Shemoneh Esreih. We need to enter a mindset of faith and reliance through Ashrei before we begin praying. That is what Abayei was saying by leaving the building and going outdoors to point to God. We can relate to God after we prepare ourselves by embracing a proper mindset.

The Gemara (Berakhos 21a) explains that there is a biblical obligation to recite blessings after eating a meal (to bentch) and to recite blessings before studying Torah. Why is there a difference between eating, where we recite the blessings afterward, and studying Torah, where we recite the blessings before? The Meshekh Chokhmah (Deut. 8:11) explains that after you eat, when you are feeling satisfied, is the meal-related time when there is the most religious danger. When you are hungry, you look to God to help you. When you are satiated, you don't need anyone's help. That is why there is an obligation to thank God at that point, to counter the improper feelings that can arise.

When it comes to studying Torah, the greatest spiritual danger is before you begin studying. That is when you need to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to interact with the Divine word. That is when you need to adopt a respectful attitude toward tradition and a sense of humility towards the great words of our God and the sages who preceded you. If you make the proper preparations then the Torah study will uplift you. If you fail to do so, you run the risk of approaching Torah with a cynical and disrespectful attitude and therefore the Torah you learn will spiritually damage you. It is all a matter of attitude and perspective.

We are here to celebrate a forum that we have created in which we can approach Torah with the proper attitudes of respect and deference. Because we maintain this conservative allegiance to tradition, we can ask questions and study all areas of inquiry without fear. When we prepare ourselves properly to study the sacred texts, we can move beyond the levels which we were taught in our younger years and strive for a more profound and sophisticated understanding appropriate for our age. Through the collaboration of an amazing group of writers and thinkers, we have had many penetrating and respectful discussions of complex matters that have given us all insight into the different approaches within the Torah world. We have gained deeper understanding of our own approaches and a respect for the depth that can be found in many different Torah communities around the world.

The book whose publication we are celebrating today is the fruit of many people's labor. It is the result of a collaboration of students from across the world, from a wide range of ages, accomplishments and backgrounds, who come together online to respectfully discuss religious issues. The publication is a tribute to everyone who participates. It is also a tribute to the many who read quietly and discuss the issues offline. The conversations on this blog spill over into many shuls, schools, boardrooms and lunchrooms. Everyone who reads is part of the experience. To all of you, I say thank you.

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