Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 27, 2023 / 5 Shevat 5783
Summary: This week’s Oasis Song is a report on where my meditation practice currently is and how it has transformed my faith.
Reading Time: Five minutes
A couple of weeks back, I wrote about how grief places a mourner outside of the normal world. The concerns of grief are universal, timeless, but also highly individualistic. One consequence of this has been that I have not followed the news cycle as closely as normal. This morning, for example, I heard the terrible report of an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue. If you follow news from the Middle East, you have probably heard something about this already.
Earlier in the week, Israel raided Jenin in an attempt to stop a terror cell. Simultaneously, the new Israeli government, at least on the surface, represents the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. As a result, some Conservative Movement rabbis have stopped reciting the prayer for Israel in their communities. Praying for such a government feels untenable to some of these rabbis.
In other times, I would have responded at least to some of these issues to provide my Jewish take. It can be argued that one of the duties of a congregational rabbi is to provide framing around the issues of the day. After all, Judaism historically has had something to say about every aspect of human life; there is no reason that our tradition can’t provide insight on our contemporary challenges.
Instead, in addition to work duties and the grieving process, my focus has been on an “anchor” that the year-long Jewish meditation cohort, of which I am a part, has been using over the past two weeks. An anchor in meditation is the point of focus to which one returns one’s attention whenever a meditator notices that the mind has wandered off. In many schools of meditation, that anchor is often the breath, but we can choose to focus our attention on a sound or sensation just as easily as the breath.
One feature of Jewish meditation that distinguishes it from other schools of mindfulness is the choice of anchor. For example, Rabbi Alan Lew introduced me to the use of the Tetragramaton (God’s four-letter name, YHVH) as an anchor. Over the past two weeks, my anchor has been zeh eli (v’anveihu). “This is my God (and I will exalt God).” Whenever I noticed that my mind had wandered from my breath, I would mentally point at the distraction and say silently, “Zeh Eli.”
At first glance, pointing at a distracting thought or sensation and calling it God might seem a bit strange. Yet contained within much of the Hasidic world, and the Jewish mystical traditions as represented by the Kabbalah, God is everything: it is only a sense of illusion that prevents us from seeing this, according to this stream of thought.
As an intellectual concept, however, this is a belief that I long rejected. It didn’t make sense to my rational mind; in some ways, calling even those phenomena that I dislike or find evil “God” was disturbing or upsetting. It seemed to be too relativistic, as though one was arguing that all behavior or thoughts are equally good. That’s not something I believe.
Yet using zeh eli as an anchor of consciousness is not at all relativistic. Rather, for me, treating my distractions as God has been transformative. It has brought me greater peace, profound new understandings of the gifts my mother gave me, and a capacity to discover greater joy and beauty in the world and the people around me. My faith has been renewed at a much deeper level just as my experience of God in the world has become very tangible. I have had greater stretches of time experiencing God rather than thinking about God. I am profoundly grateful for this gift of grace.
Describing these sorts of inward experiences with words is inherently flawed because it is not possible to convey non-verbal experiences to another person through words. Unless people have had their own direct experience, reading someone else’s description can seem alien or nonsensical, even just a description, not the experience itself. I remember an encounter thirty years ago with a visitor to the synagogue Laura and I belonged to. The man was talking about his experience of God,so it made me think everything else he said was suspect, or that he was making it up to appear like he was a spiritual master operating at a level that normal people couldn’t reach. Apparently, this sort of experience “is not in heaven or across the sea.” This is a state of awareness that anyone who desires it can cultivate. Like so much in life, it simply requires a dedication of time, effort, and desire.
Contained within this “simple” anchor of zeh eli is an antidote to so much of the separation in the world, such as the horrific murder of people who went to a synagogue to pray. We tend to divide and place people into groups: good or bad, correct or incorrect, our team or their team. Once that occurs, we can justify all sorts of barbarities. Seeing everyone as part of God doesn’t excuse destructive behaviors, but it seems to foster greater compassion toward them in the heart of the zeh eli practitioner. At least that has been my early experience over the past two weeks.
One lesson that meditation has taught me is how crazy my mind is, how thoughts of anger, fear, and obsession constantly surface. Before I began practicing, I tended not to notice that those thoughts were there, probably because I didn’t want to view myself as someone who felt all of those unsavory things. Another lesson is that everyone’s mind surfaces a similar mess of thoughts, emotions, and storytelling. My crazy mind is uniquely mine, but it is not so very different from your crazy mind.
A third lesson, however, is that we don’t need to grow attached to those thoughts; so much of the hatred and anger that fills the world is a result of people becoming so attached to their thoughts and feelings that it spills over into their actions, including justifying murder. Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a chilling reminder that the first step to genocide occurs whenever we attach ourselves to our anger and rage, diminishing the humanity of others by placing them outside the camp of the civilized. On a day like this, perhaps we could all benefit by incorporating a little more zeh eli practice into our daily lives?
Shabbat Table Talk
- Many people have had experiences of God, yet don’t often feel comfortable sharing those moments with others. When have you felt closest to God? What was happening in your life when that occurred?
- What is the most unproductive story that you keep repeating inside your head? By unproductive, I mean what story do you repeat that makes you feel less connected to another person or group?
- What story do you tell that makes you feel most distant from God?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.