Saturday, April 25, 2020

CoronaBlues, The Metzora, and Prayer

In this past week’s Torah Reading, Tazria-Metzora, we found the descriptions of Tzaarat, a spiritual-moral affliction that manifests itself through physical symptoms. We also found the Metzora, one who is afflicted with Tzaarat, and the procedure the Kohen (priest) uses, to “cure” him.

“And the person with Tzaarat, in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, his hair left uncut, he shall put a covering up to his lips [a mask] and he shall cry out, contaminated, contaminated. All the days that the affliction is upon him he is contaminated, he is Tameh [spiritually unclean and spiritually contagious]. He shall dwell alone [in self-isolation] outside the camp [through social distancing], (Leviticus 13:45-46).

That sounds a lot like what’s been taking place these days throughout the world… The CoronaBlues.

We are told that the sin of Loshon HaRa (slander) against others, causing division and hatred between people, is the reason that this “invisible enemy” has come upon him. Because he separated wives from their husbands and friend from friend, with his evil speech, he is now isolated from society, (Talmud Arakhin 16B).

The Dubno Magid, Rabbi Yakov Krantz, explained that many people say negative things and aren’t aware of the power of their speech. They rationalize, “I only said...” The Metzora is taught a lesson about the power of even a single word. Going to the Kohen, to be diagnosed, as to whether he’s a Metzora or not, by one word, Tameh, the Kohen decides his future, and he can be sent away from society, into isolation. (Ohel Yakov, Metzora).

“...And he shall cry out, contaminated, contaminated.”

The Talmud, in Sotah 32B, states that the Metzora does this to let others know of his affliction, so that people will pray for his recovery. The Talmud adds that anyone suffering, should inform the public, and they will pray to God to have mercy on him. From here we learn, that when you hear of someone’s troubles, sickness, or suffering from a tragedy, you should pray for them, even though you were not directly asked to do so.

So, I hope everybody reading this, has been increasing their Ahavat Yisrael, the last few months; praying for those stricken with the Corona plague, those unemployed, and all who are suffering from this pandemic.

We’ve all heard of roof-top or Merpasot (balcony) Minyans, neighbors in buildings next to, or within earshot of each other, participating in a community minyan, while the Batei Knesset (synagogues) have been closed, do to the lock-down. But not everybody has been lucky to do that. Many many people, have been Davening (praying) alone, at home.

Israelis are fluent in Hebrew (unlike many of their brethren (even the orthodox) in Chutz L’Aretz (outside the Land), and many Israeli Minyans move along quite quickly during prayers. But I’ve always wondered, just how much Kavanah (thoughtful intention/mindfulness) and emotional outpouring of the soul to God, can one have when praying that fast.

As the prophets and psalmist said over and over and over again, chastising a sinning Israel, “I don’t want your sacrifices, I want your love; I don’t want your offerings, I want you to know me,” (Hosea 6:6).

With the destruction of the second temple, the rabbis put more emphasis on prayer. The Talmud in Berachot 26b teaches that, “R. Joshua ben Levi said, ‘The prayers were instituted to replace the daily sacrifices.’” Offerings of the mind, heart, and lips, were now equated with the offerings of burnt flesh.

Midrash Tehillim 39:3 teaches, “A prayer on the tongue is better than any sacrifice. As its written, ‘I will praise the name of God with a song, I will exalt him with thanksgiving and it shall please God better than bulls,’ Psalms 69:31-32.”

But are quick, zippy minyans, conducive to thoughtful, heartful prayer and connection to the Holy One, Blessed Be He?

Interestingly, the Zohar3:228a (Raya Mehemna), makes the connection between prayer, the Kashrut of sacrifices, and lung damage (disease). “If prayer becomes stuck and is expressed with difficulty, then it is torn away (Treif). This is because an adhesion in the lung renders something torn away.”

Well, guess what God seems to have said for nearly two months, “I’m not interested in your meaningless minyans in synagogue, just like your former sacrifices, so, I’ll close them down too!”

In this time of mass synagogue closures because of the CoronaVirus, it presents people with a new opportunity to really work on one’s prayer in the quiet and comfort of their own home, without concern of what others will think or say, to learn to truly pour out their hearts to their creator.

Let’s take a look at some things that can be done to “spice up,” daily prayers, and make them more meaningful.

1. Try learning some new Perushim (explanations/commentaries) on the prayers, or particular Psalms or Pasukim (verses).

2. Spend some time before you start to pray, contemplating that the Master of the Universe is right there with you. The Mishnah in Berakhot 5:1, teaches that the Chasidim Rishonim (pious men of old) would contemplate/meditate an entire hour, in preparation for prayer, that they might direct their thoughts to God. So, at least take a few moments.

3. Try singing Pasukim (verses) instead of just saying the words. When you get to a Pasuk that you know a tune to, sing it out, repeat it a few times, get into it, connect to it, its meaning, and to God.

“There are gates on high that can only be opened with song,” (Tikkunei Zohar 11 – 26b).

The Talmud in Arakhin 11a teaches, “It is written, ‘You did not serve God with joy and gladness of heart’ (Deuteronomy 28:47). What worship includes joy and gladness? This is song.”

“When you pray, do so with a melody that is sweet and pleasant in your ears. The melody will cause you to pray with feeling, since it leads your heart to follow the words,” (Sefer Chasidim 158).

4. Try raising your hands to heaven, above your head, its very liberating.

Exodus 17:11 says, “So it came about when Moses held his hands up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hands down, Amalek prevailed.” We all are struggling with that inner Amalek, our Yetzer HaRa (evil inclination) of anxiety these days, that tries to distract us during prayer from anything meaningful.

“Do Moses’ hands make or break war? Rather, this teaches: Whenever Israel would look upward and direct their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed...” (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:8).

As it says in Psalms 88:10, “Everyday I call out to You, God, I spread out my hands to You.”

“Raising one’s hands alludes to the fact that the Shekhina (God’s indwelling presence) is transmitting sustenance from on high,” (Pardes Rimonim 15:3).

“Its a great Ma’alah (merit/virtue) to stretch out your hands during prayer, or when giving thanks or praise to the Boreh Yitbarach Shmo (the Creator, Blessed be His Name),” (Sefer Yesod V’Shoresh HaAvodah, Gate 3 – Song, Chapter 1).

5. In the Yeshiva that I often Daven at, for Shabbat, during parts of Kabbalat Shabbat, they break out a few times into dance, while singing repetitively the verse. They also dance, often during parts of Hallel and in other places of the prayers. So, even when I’ve been praying at home I’ve kept up the “tradition.” Try dancing while singing verses, its good exercise, and it will open up your lungs and heart to God. A lot is said in sources about movement during prayer, this just takes it to the next level.

6. Say the Amida (Shmoneh Esrei – silent prayer) very slowly, even better if you can do it from memory rather than reading from the Siddur (prayer book). Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his book, “Jewish Meditation” pg. 105, refers to the Chasidim Rishonim, who after collecting their thoughts for an hour, said the Amida for another hour.

He says that the Amida was used as a meditative device. Rabbi Kaplan points out that the Amida has about 500 words, and if said for an hour (3,600 seconds), that is a pace of about one word every seven seconds. Saying the Amida at this pace is a highly advanced form of meditation. And, although most of us aren’t there yet, maintaining this pace for the first Bracha (paragraph), which contains only 42 words, is within reach. One word every seven seconds would take just under five minutes, a reasonable amount of time, and yet long enough to put one into a deep meditative state.

“Every word of prayer is a complete concept. You must therefore place all your feelings into it. If you don’t, it remains incomplete,” (Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, Tzavaat HaRivash).

“Our main link to God is through words – words of Torah and prayer. Every single letter in these words has an inner spiritual essence. You must attach your thoughts and innermost being to this essence… When you draw out a word and don’t want to let it go, you are in a state of Devekut, attachment to God,” (Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, Keter Shem Tov 44).

My challenge to all who have been forced to pray at home, instead of their local synagogue these days, is to use the situation for growth. Even better, when finally liberated from this viral Mitzraim, bring back to the Beit Knesset, what you have achieved. Talk to others, compare notes.

Happy to return to synagogue; make Davening really something special. Bring life and joy back to prayer, even during the weekdays.

As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was fond of saying, “Simcha (joy) brings Refuah (healing). Just another way, to kill off the CoronaBlues.
Ariel Natan Pasko, an independent analyst and consultant, has a Master's Degree specializing in International Relations, Political Economy & Policy Analysis. His articles appear regularly on numerous news/views and think-tank websites and in newspapers. His latest articles can also be read on his archive: The Think Tank by Ariel Natan Pasko.
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