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Eikev 5782: Bu-rning Questions

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! In last week’s Torah reading we find Moses prophesying that after the Jewish nation settles in the Land of Israel and is established there for many generations, they will become decadent and corrupted with idol worship, which will anger the Almighty. Moses informs them that this will cause God to cast them out from the Land of Israel: “God will scatter you among the nations, and only a small number will remain among the nations to which God will lead you” (Deuteronomy 4:27).

This predictive statement, which is rather astonishingly accurate, can be better understood with the following comparison. According to Chinese censuses taken around 2 CE there were about 50 million Chinese people at that time. Today, there are about 1.5 billion Chinese people. Columbia University’s Professor Salo Baron, who was considered among the most important researchers and historians of Judaism of that period, estimated the number of Jews in the world at that time to be eight million.

If the Jewish population would have grown at the same rate as the Chinese, there should have been close to 240 million Jews in the world today. Yet somehow, as the Torah presciently foretells, the worldwide Jewish population hovers around the number 13 million. Obviously, worldwide dispersion, persecution, and outright annihilation all contribute to this rather depressing statistic.

But, as I have pointed out previously in these pages, the real tragedy is that the number of Jews in the world has remained more or less unchanged in the last 50 years. This, for the most part, we have no one to blame but ourselves. The spiritual holocaust of intermarriage and apathy, which have led to a wholesale abandonment of Judaism, is solely on us. Remarkably, many Jews haven’t really stopped searching for spiritual meaning, they just look for it outside of their religion.

For some reason – and there are many hypotheses as to why – many Jews are drawn to Buddhism. They often become devotees of Buddhism and are referred to BuJus or JuBus (personally I see them as BuBus); It has been estimated that Jews comprise a full third of non Asian Buddhists in the western world. Even though this is quite depressing, it nonetheless reminds me of a joke.

An older Jewish woman from Brooklyn, New York, decides that she must travel to the Himalayas to visit a famous guru. After an arduous journey consisting of planes, trains, and rickshaws, she finally reaches the Buddhist monastery in Nepal. Exhausted, she ambles up to the entrance and knocks on the door. An old lama in a flowing maroon and saffron colored robe opens the door and the woman requests a meeting with the guru.

The lama explains that this is quite impossible because the guru is engaged in a silent retreat; meditating in a cave high on the mountaintop. But this lama had never met a woman from Brooklyn – they set the standard for dogged determination. Not willing to take no for an answer, she pleads with him for over an hour and promises that her meeting with the guru will take less than a minute. The lama finally relents and gives her the directions to where the guru is in seclusion.

The woman hires a Sherpa to help her climb the mountain and slowly but determinedly begins her ascent. After four hours, and with barely an ounce of strength left, she finally reaches the cave. Cautiously, she enters the cave and finds the middle aged guru sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed, meditating peacefully. She boldly walks right up to him, sticks her finger in his chest – jarring him from his concentration – and says, “Stanley! Enough already! It’s time to come home!”

A few weeks ago I shared a Shabbat meal with Dr. Joel Finkelstein and his young family. Dr. Finkelstein is an extraordinarily bright and accomplished scholar; he’s a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Madison Program for Ideas and Institutions at Princeton University, and the director of the National Contagion Network / Miller Institute at Rutgers University. Dr. Finkelstein shared with me his personal journey to Orthodox Judaism, and after Shabbat I emailed him asking if I might use his story in this column. Here it is, in his own words, though I have edited it some for clarity and space constraints.

“At age 28, bright eyed and optimistic, I was enchanted with few things more than the mind, brain, and neuroscientific discovery. So intense were these passions that I would come to spend several years, first at Stanford and then Princeton, pursuing a Ph.D. doing things that might read to many of you like a strange science fiction novel; genetically engineering the neurons of animals to control their mind with laser beams and putting animals into virtual reality while imaging their brains with a special microscope. Like many of my scientific peers (and especially my Jewish peers) I was an atheist, with a soft spot for Buddhist spirituality.

“In truth, it was more than just a soft spot. In 2009 I had helped to start a Buddhist center at Stanford University with the financial support of the Dalai Lama himself who endowed the center in order to understand the ‘neuroscience and psychology of compassion.’ Meditation, I thought, was the central and most plausible route to self-actualization and healing for both the individual and the planet.

“By 2011, I was flying to India to Dharamsala, the Tibetan Government headquarters in exile, to meet with a cadre of fellow scientists who study and publish works on meditation and its impacts on the mind, for an international conference on the subject.

“I didn’t know, or really care all that much, that the conference fell out during Passover, but several of my colleagues asked that I help lead a last minute Seder they were throwing together, since my Hebrew was marginally better than total illiteracy. When the Seder came, a sizable group of us assembled which was neatly split into two distinct populations: Buddhist monks, dressed dutifully in colorful crimson and bright orange robes, and brainy bespectacled scientists. It was the first time I came to realize that nearly all of the scientists at this Buddhist conference were Jewish.

“As I began leading the Seder, and especially as we came to the four questions, a strange feeling fell over me. A question of my own began to enter my mind, one that would come to prove incredibly transformative in my life. It began in earnest as a gnawing doubt and slowly grew into a persistent and clear cry for attention over time.

“Why were we so intent on questioning these things so passionately? Where did this instinct to question come from? Isn’t it a bit strange that all these Jews would be so possessed to pursue entire careers driven by such intense spiritual curiosity? What makes us as Jews, like the Seder night in question, so different?

“My Jewish colleagues and I, so passionate for discovering routes to spiritual enlightenment, were intent on seeking them through FMRI, EEG, and statistics pathways to mental clarity and wisdom. Why were we so consumed by these questions and why were we searching for it in the wisdom of other cultures?

“The Seder itself seemed to echo the answer as though poised to deliver a punchline: Our identity as a nation, uniquely, is a kind of brain, and each Jew is a kind of neuron. Thus, the Exodus from Egypt (and subsequent revelation at Mount Sinai) could only be properly understood in the context of a national experience – and not merely a personal enlightenment. As we relive that, the degrees of freedom we gain aren’t merely in our own minds, they actually shape our reality. This awareness – one that is embedded in our national psyche – transcends beyond the confines of any one person’s experience. Rather, it unfolds across our generations in the timeless performance of rituals like the Seder. It is this longing to reclaim our heritage that is in the spiritual DNA of our souls that makes us different, and finds us continuously searching for answers.

“Though I didn’t know it at the time, the gnawing question that began that Passover night would eventually lead me to both resign from atheism and ditch Buddhism. It would leave me face to face with a way of life far more formidable, meaningful, and complex than anything I had ever encountered. I see this path of life now reflected in the faces of my own children and at the Shabbat table that my wife prepares. If I’m being completely honest, I’m starting to wonder how much time we might be wasting looking for enlightenment by studying the minds of Buddhists.”

Professor Finkelstein’s last point echoes a lament expressed almost fifty years ago by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, of blessed memory. In his book on Jewish meditation he mourns the loss of tens of thousands of Jews that have forsaken their own heritage to search for answers within the confines of Eastern religions’ thoughts and philosophies, never realizing that Judaism itself has the answers they are so desperately seeking.

Ultimately, it comes down to education: We must ensure that all Jews have a Jewish education, one that is not based merely on Jewish culture and meaningless or rote ritual observances. As educators we have a responsibility to transmit not just the “hows” of following the Torah, but also the deeper (and more meaningful) “whys” of the Torah. One of the areas in which our schools and religious institutions most often fail this standard is in teaching a proper understanding of what prayer is all about – but this is a conversation for another time.

Torah Portion of the Week

Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25

Moses continues his discourse guaranteeing the Jewish people prosperity and good health if they follow the mitzvot, the commandments. He reminds us to look at our history and to know that we can and should trust in God. However, we should be careful so that we are not distracted by our material success, lest we forget and ignore God.

Moses warns us against idolatry and against self-righteousness. He then details our rebellions against God during the 40 years in the desert and the giving of the Second Tablets (Moses broke the first Tablets containing the Ten Commandments during the sin of the Golden Calf).

The Torah then answers a question that every human being has asked of himself: What does God want of you? “Only that you remain in awe of God your Lord, so that you will follow all His paths and love Him, serving God your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul. You must keep God’s commandments and decrees […] so that all good will be yours” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Candle Lighting Times

Zen is not easy. After all, it takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkis.
— from an article on Aish.com

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Ricky & Pam Turetsky




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