The history of Jewish Meditation

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“The key ingredient to true faith is a clear imagination. The intellect is limited by its knowledge. Faith only starts where the intellect can no longer go. By means of a pure imagination we can soar to heights of faith and come close to our Creator”.

(Tinyana 8)

Much of the below was gleaned from classes I heard from Rabbi Daniel Katz of The Elevation Project.

Most people think that meditation practices are sourced in newer religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, when in fact Judaism, the oldest religion known today, is nothing less than saturated with meditation and consciousness teachings. It’s no exaggeration to say that much of the meditation practice studied today is sourced in Judaic writings. So, why has it been a secret until now and why is it suddenly being revealed?

Throughout the writings of the Prophets one clearly sees that prophecy was only reached from a state of meditation. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) states that there were 1.2 million prophets who shared their prophecy throughout our history. It is inferred that scores of other prophets existed, who simply didn’t share their revelations. Unfortunately, at the very beginning of the Second Temple era the desire for spiritual connection was leading the Jews astray. The lust to worship idols and draw out their spiritual energy was ruining our overall relationship with Hashem, so the sages made a bold move. They used their powers to remove the lust for idol worship, knowing full well that our holy spiritual connection of prophecy would be lost as well.

So how does one connect to Hashem when his main technique of spirituality is removed? The answer is that the Torah went into exile. This means that the Torah has a unique dynamic relationship with the Jews. When we change, the Torah changes to meet us. This doesn’t mean that the laws or the practices of the Torah change, but our interface with it changes. At the time when prophecy ceased, the Greeks were coming into power, with their rationalist and analytical ideas, so Hashem revealed a new aspect of the Torah, which was focused primarily on analyzation. This was the beginning of Jewish debating, opinion and the study of the the Talmud.

The study of Jewish law continued to grow from the Babylonian exile until approximately 1740/1840, when the Baal Shem Tov realized that on a national level we were too used to thinking about the Torah intellectually, and we almost completely lost the Divine language of experience (Tzavaas Harivash #80). This resulted in the Jewish people learning text superficially, without understanding its deeper meditational influence and references. But that’s not all he noticed, there was another change too. It used to be that people naturally understood their life’s purpose, know as their shoresh neshama. But as time went on throughout our exile, the Baal Shem Tov saw (Shaar Hayichud Vhaemuna) that there was an inter-inclusion of the souls, called Hiskalilus. Everything was mixed up now and even the simple people wanted to experience the Divine, a phenomenon that never existed prior to. This is because Hashem started to exponentially hasten the coming of the redemption, as is stated in Isaiah (60) “B’ita Achishena” (“in it’s time, I will hasten it”), which the Zohar predicts to mean specifically from around the eighteenth century. In order to meet the needs of the changing Jewish souls, the Baal Shem Tov began to reveal the secrets of the Torah and meditation, which were lost, hidden, shunned and exiled. The path of Chassidus is no more and no less than the path of prophecy being re-revealed in our generation.

But from that time in the 18th century, the Divine revelation didn’t only start to ramp up from the Torah’s side. The discoveries of science, technology and psychology also began to burst forth at an unprecedented speed and accuracy. This dual revelation of science, from the bottom up, and Torah, from the top down is the fulfillment of that same prophecy predicted in the Zohar (Parshas Vayera). The Torah writes regarding the flood in the times of Noah (Genesis 7:11) “on this day, all the springs of the great deep were split, and the windows of the heavens opened up ”. The Zohar explains that there will be a similar two-way flood of consciousness that will reoccur in the final redemption. “The springs of the great deep” will be the knowledge that science reveals, and “the windows of Heaven” will reveal the consciousness of the Divine in the Torah path. When these two paths meet, the world will be flooded with knowledge and consciousness of the Divine. This is happening now and, please G-d, we should merit to see the end, when the whole world will proclaim Hashem’s unity, Amen!

 

Photo of Abir Yaakov Painting – By David Aharon Podbere

 

 

Absorbing our surroundings

Divine connection

Did you ever have a conversation with someone where you intended to teach them something but in the end you ended up learning something deeper about the idea yourself? As the words are leaving your mouth, you’re surprised at how clear it is to you and you notice how the other person feels deeply connected to what your saying. Or sometimes you discuss a certain challenge with a friend and come to a profound insight simply by speaking out the issue. (They might start responding with their advice but now you’re engulfed in your own thoughts, ignoring what they’re telling you).

Rebbe Nachman calls this the internalization of surrounding perceptions, אורות המקיפים.

In Tinyana 7 he says that when we speak with our friends and students about the fear of Heaven, we’re able to reach levels of knowledge that just before were unattainable to us. The Kabbalah speaks of two forms of perceptions, or spiritual lights. The first is called פנימי, or internal perception. The other is called מקיף, a peripheral perception. Whatever a person knows already is his internal perception. But there is always greater insights that he has yet to comprehend.  These peripheral perceptions are said to hover around his mind. The Rebbe teaches that when we engage ourselves in the loving act of teaching another human being, we empty our mind of our internal perceptions. This now allows the peripheral and transcendent perceptions to penetrate our mind.  Now we can understand that which was previously unattainable to us.

King David sings “מכל מלמדי השכלתי, I learned from all my teachers” (Psalms 119). What did David mean by saying that he learned from all his teachers? This could be answered by what the Talmud says in the name of Judah Hanasi, “I learned a lot of Torah from my teachers, and from my friends even more, but from my students the most” (Makkos 10a). How could it be that this great tanna learned the most from his students? But now we understand that when we give over our knowledge to others, we make space for new knowledge. When Judah Hanasi taught his students, he learned the most because the peripheral perceptions that he couldn’t grasp now became part of his internal knowledge.

Another thing that is crucial to learn from this teaching is the importance of communicating. So many of us feel too much pride to share. We feel too uncomfortable to make ourselves vulnerable, unburdening ourselves before others. But there’s deeper insight surrounding us, waiting to enter and illuminate our minds. Open your mouth, teach and let the light shine in.

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The truth is in your head

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I’ve noticed that when I go out and pray in the fields, maybe the most common adjective I use is the word real. I pray to be real. I ask myself if I’m being real? Is this what I really want? Is that what I really think? Conversely, something I scorn is the word fake, and I hope that I’m not being fake.

 

“When someone stands in prayer, he is surrounded with foreign thoughts. He is left in the dark and can’t pray, as it says ‘You’ve enveloped Yourself in a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through’ (Lamentations 3)…There are many ways to exit this darkness but man is blind and can’t find the exit. You should know that [by seeking] the truth, one can find the exit, as it says (Psalms 27), ‘Hashem is my light and my savior'”. (Torah 9)

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קָרוֹב יְהוָה לְכָל קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת
Hashem is close to those who call out in truth (Psalms 145)

So Rebbe Nachman‘s saying that by accessing our truth, we can see the light and pray properly. How do we do that? How do we know if we’re being true to ourselves?

In Torah 38 the Rebbe says that “Elevating speech begins from its head. This is the truest part of the spoken word, as it says, “ראש דברך אמת, the head of Your word is truth” (Psalms 119).

I think that everyone has their own truth that’s accessible to them. We get very caught up in our thoughts and many times they lead us away from our essential truth. (When we pray especially, the other side will do anything possible to disturb us, because a true prayer can overturn anything and bring personal or national salvation). The way to connect to our truth is to find its head. The head means the primary but also means the first. Many times we’re able to trace back our thoughts to their core. We need to simply ask ourselves a few ‘why’ questions to probe deeper and access our primary feelings. Some might say our healthy thoughts are most accessible by just letting the thoughts pass and allowing new thoughts to flow in, others might promote mindfulness and meditation. There are different opinions but what’s clear is that we have the capability of accessing our own truth. It takes a bit of practice and patience but, as the verse says, Hashem is close to those who call out in truth. That means that it’s closer than we think. The Talmud says that “Hashem’s stamp is truth” (Shabbat 55a). What’s interesting about a stamp is that even after the stamping action, the impression lasts. This means that when we see truth, it’s a sign that Hashem is there. These impressions are the insights that we get when we merit praying sincerely. We might wonder, “Why should I keep on talking and praying, when I’m never being answered”? But when we speak the truth, Hashem is right there and we can see the impression of His stamp almost as if He’s talking back.

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Soul-shine

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The holy Reb Aharon from Karlin was once eating an apple when one of his chassidim brashly asked him, “Rebbe, I don’t understand! You eat apples and I eat apples. You make a bracha and I make a bracha. What’s the difference between me and you”? The Rebbe answered him as follows: “When I wake up in the morning, I’m awe-inspired by creation and the lovingkindness of our Creator. I feel humbled and have an urge to say ‘Blessed are you God’ but I’m not allowed to bless unless I eat something. So I eat the apple. You wake up in the morning with the urge to eat an apple. Because you’re a religious Jew you make the blessing and eat it. The difference is that you make the bracha to eat the apple and I eat the apple to make the bracha”!

The Talmud asks, “Why don’t the sons of torah scholars follow in their ways? Because their fathers didn’t make the blessing on the Torah before they learned it”. Rebbe Nachman (Torah 14) explains quite esoterically that when we learn Torah we need to shine light through our blessing into our root-soul. Meaning to say, it’s not that the scholars didn’t make the blessing before they learnt, but rather they didn’t bless THE BEFORE when they learnt. Our soul is the before, because it was conceived in God’s mind before creation (Zohar Chadash).  

Sometimes after going all-out for our kids, in a way that only a loving parent can, they say thank you. I know there’s nothing more they can do than express their thanks verbally, but I think to myself, “do you know how much it entailed to do this for you? I’m happy you’re thankful but there’s no way you can appreciate all the sweat and time I put into this for you”!

The same is true with our brachos, except that God does know if and how appreciative we are. We religious Jews strive to make 100 blessings per day. I know how hard it is to change our concentration level in our blessings. (You’re not the only one who can’t remember if they made an after-bracha)! But maybe we can choose just one blessing a day where we take a moment and appreciate all the preparation that God is constantly doing for us, all the way back to the creation of our soul? Our Jewish soul is what we should be most grateful for. We can never thank Him enough for it! Similar to the chesed we do for our small children, our soul is much greater than we can ever appreciate. I know it’s not that easy. By now we do things almost robotically. But we certainly can make a small change. All we can do is try a little-bit more to recognize and visualize the fine details of His love and with those stronger blessings shine light into all of our holy souls!

Work with what we have

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I’m hard on myself! I might seem like I’m chilled out, and I really am, but I expect a lot from myself and sometimes I get upset when I don’t perform on the level I imagined that I could.

I recently shared a personal story in a group setting that when I witnessed somebody doing something extra devout my immediate reaction was to play it down and criticize the guy in my mind because I likely felt intimidated by his piety. By imagining his intentions to be less than sincere I was able to be ok with my own lack of devotion.  A little later I noticed the pettiness of my reaction and tried to reassess the situation in my mind, instead thinking that I’m proud of him and happy that I witnessed his behavior so I can learn from it and become more sensitive myself.

I expressed to the group that although I came to terms with what happened, I felt frustrated that my initial reaction was so flawed. The group leader taught me an amazing lesson that I find so revitalizing. The Gemara says ‘מתוך שלא לשמה, בא לשמה’. This means that although someone’s intentions [in learning Torah] might at first be for the wrong reasons (such as honor), he will eventually come to study for the sake of Heaven. Then he quoted to me a new explanation of this teaching: ‘Because we have the wrong intentions at first, it allows us to overcome those thoughts and feelings, and have proper feelings’. Only because I started off feeling negative, was I able to turn around and see things positively.

This idea is so liberating for me!    The thoughts that flow into my mind initially are not something I can control, so why beat myself up about them? Rather I need to see them as my personal springboard to have newer, better thoughts that are positive and favorable.

One step deeper…In Torah 49 Rebbe Nachman teaches that the thoughts in our hearts create the world we live in. If a person has negative thoughts, he’s creating negativity in the world. The world becomes a product of his negativity. This might seem outrageous but it’s true. Conversely, of course, if we produce positive thoughts, we are allowing Hashem’s Divine traits to flow into the world and create positivity. Similar to the idea in my earlier post, our thoughts define the world we live in.  If we collaborate the two ideas, what comes out is that Hashem controls our initial perceptions. All we can do is take the thinking we naturally received and try to adapt to positivity. That’s how we can create a better world!