Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 3, 2023 / 12 Shevat 5783

Meditation Shabbat / Shabbat Morning Service

Saturday, 9:30am – Stampfer Chapel

חֲסִידִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים הָיוּ שׁוֹהִין שָׁעָה אַחַת וּמִתְפַּלְּלִין כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּכַוְּונוּ לִבָּם

The earliest practitioners of kindness would meditate for an hour and then pray, so that they could direct their hearts and minds to heaven. -Talmud, Brachot 30b

The first Saturday of each month at Congregation Neveh Shalom is our Meditation Shabbat. An evolving—and revolving—series of practices will be incorporated into our regular sanctuary service, with the sermon slot dedicated to a focused meditation. The heart of Shabbat, including the Shema, Amidah, and the Torah service will be included. Members of the Portland community-at-large are invited to participate.

Summary: In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are thirsty, but for a time, all they can find to quench their thirst are bitter waters. Tinnitus has made me reevaluate this Torah story.

Reading Time: Three minutes

Most of us have invisible markers of identity that form and shape us, but which go unobserved by others and are often unremarked upon by us. One personal marker is the ringing in my ears, perpetual company since a bomb blast installed it there long ago. It’s one of the reasons I love music, for when I give it my full attention, this cacophony of crickets inside my brain quiets down, lulled into inaction by a greater sound of joy and feeling. Still, I am fortunate that this background noise is just that, something I can push to the side as I go on with my day. For some, this constant buzz, like an electric transformer perched on the ears as birds sit on a telephone wire, drives them wild, mad with distraction, until all they can hear is the incessant ringing of the dinner bell, reminding them of how ravenous they are for silence.

Recently, I’ve used my tinnitus as a meditation anchor, gathering my attention around it, like a right-handed pianist who only plays the last two sibilant ivories. Approached this way, there’s a beauty to this racket, my most loyal and constant of friends. It reminded me of a comment that Rav Avraham Dov Ber Auerbach of Avritch, known for his book, “Bat Ayin,” makes on this week’s parashah of Beshalach. While in the desert, the Israelites encamp at Marah, the place of bitter waters, and promptly complain to Moses, demanding of him, “Mah nishteh, what shall we drink.”

The Bat Ayin has a bit of fun by inverting the letters in the words for trouble, tzarah, and bitter, marah, turning them instead into ratzah and ramah. In this way, our troubles turn into a desire, and our bitterness turns into a high place. The lesson Rav Avraham derives is how good things are always hidden within a husk that disguises the inward blessing. It is our job to remove that covering or klippah, using our desire to elevate the dross material of our life. So far, this is straightforward Jewish mysticism, and for anyone who has studied a bit, this teaching comes more as a reminder than any novel insight. As always, though, we each can push our insights into new territory.

Sitting in meditation, I suddenly realized that my tinnitus is an illusion. No one else can hear it. It doesn’t have independent existence, there really are no crickets in my brain, just a bit of faulty wiring, if you will. Yet how real it seems to me! In that moment, it was clear to me that so much of what we think and believe has as little basis in reality as my tinnitus. We make ourselves crazy or miserable by giving solidity to our theories or emotions until we no longer can recognize how often we are playing a game of make-believe. The power of imagination can be wielded for good or evil.

What sort of miracle, if any, occurred when Moses threw a piece of wood into the bitter water? The Torah merely states that the water became sweet, to which Rashi notes that if the waters were stationary—a likely scenario in a desert setting—then maybe the waters were medicinally sweetened. Under this explanation, the wood caused a physical transformation, perhaps neutralizing some bitter alkali.

Yet what if the waters were never bitter to begin with and this was merely another instance of the all too human penchant for finding fault with our lives? Moses calls out to God, God says “throw a stick in the water,” the people believe that a miracle has occurred, and now the waters suddenly taste pleasant to them. The mind is suggestible, as the placebo effect makes clear.

The crickets may never leave my head, yet since that realization, they are now a clarion call, beckoning me to the small enlightenments we each can experience when we release those stories that hold us in the bondage of imaginary suffering. This ringing in my ears is indeed a loyal and constant friend.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. How have you transformed one of life’s bitter moments into something sweet?
  2. Have you ever held a belief with such certainty that it seemed as solid as a wall, yet over time you came to realize how misguided it was? What was the belief, and what made you outgrow it?
  3. When the Torah recounts miracles, are you more likely to accept the description at face value, or do you seek a scientific explanation?

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