Parshat Behar

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

Praying for a Brainstorm
1. The Dancing Bear
2. Internal Representations of Holiness
3. Repentance and Representations
4. “Did I Grow or Not?”

Jewish Approach to Emotional Pain
1. G-d‘s Wide Shoulders
2. Broken Hearts

1. Praying for a Brainstorm

Many people wonder why their minds drift during prayers. Why on earth does the imagination start running on turbo at these particular times? The sad joke is: When you need a real brainstorm, just start your prayers. Can something be done in order to assure that our minds be under our control allowing us to feel that we are actually standing in front of the Almighty?

People used to have what was called a “thinking spot, “a specific place in which to think things through and brainstorm. This practice was based on the fact that one’s surroundings affect where one’s mind is focused. Please ‘bear’ with me and allow me to explain.

The Dancing Bear

Have you ever seen a dancing bear at a circus? The bear stands on his hind legs, picks up his forelegs, and dances to the music. The way they train that bear to put on his act can teach us an important lesson about how our own brain works. When training the bear, they put hot coals under its feet while simultaneously playing music. The poor bear comes to connect the music with the hot floor. The result: when the music is played at the circus, the bear tries to keep his legs on the floor as little as possible – which looks to us like dancing.

In a sense, the human brain functions in a similar way: it internalizes a feeling and connects it to the setting in which the feeling was experienced. (The setting is composed in the brain from various elements, including sensory input, time of day, place, and people connected with the setting.) This is called “internal representation.” Because the brain functions this way, people who have trouble falling asleep, for example, are advised not to do anything in bed except sleep. By reading, talking, or the like, the brain comes to identify the bed as a place of wakefulness, thereby impairing one’s ability to enter the sleep mode.

This concept of “internal representation” can be useful in many areas of life. Being cognizant of it can help us to control our desires and impulses. In this week’s parasha, we find a mitzvah connected to this concept.

Internal Representations of Holiness

At the end of our parasha (26:2), G-d commands us to fear and revere His sanctuary: U’Mikdashi Teera’u. The Talmud (Yevamot 6a) explains that the intention of this Commandment is to fear G-d who is present in the Beit Knesset, not to fear the shul itself. However, the Torah sees fit to communicate this by telling us to “Fear Sanctuary.” The obvious question is: Why didn’t the Torah speak straight to the point?

This may be understood with the aforementioned concept. By behaving in a reverent manner in a shul setting even not during prayer, we will feel reverence and fear of G-d during our prayers in the Beit Knesset as well. If, on the other hand, we speak about anything and everything in shul, this may cause us to internalize the wrong kind of connection and representation. The shul setting may then trigger our mind during prayer to think about the various topics our tongue is used to discussing or (willing to discuss) in this specific environment.

I myself have witnessed great rabbis showing extra reverence towards the sanctuary. When exiting, they bow and walk out facing the shul. They do not give voice to anything else in shul besides prayer and Torah. This was the custom of the Arizal as well. Indeed, the Zohar (1:255a) teaches that by talking in shul, one causes G-d’s Presence to leave, delays the Final Redemption, and puts the talker in the category of a heretic.

To have clarity during prayer, one must associate feelings of reverence with the place and time of prayer. That is why the Sages teach us that we should have both a set place and a set time for prayer – as opposed to praying whenever it can be squeezed into our schedule. It is almost impossible to feel that one is actually talking to G-d while awaiting an e-mail or running to catch a bus.

Repentance and Representations

The concept we are developing throws new light on the Rabbis’ teaching (Yoma 86b): What is a Baal Teshuva (true penitent)? One who goes through the same temptation, and overcomes his desires. Rav Yehuda explains that the three parts of the temptation include: the place, time, and people involved in the sin.

At first glance, the Rabbis seem to be saying that until the penitent withstands the temptation in that same scenario where he previously failed, he has not yet proved that he will never repeat the sin. But, we wonder, does one really need to go back into the danger zone again to prove that he changed his ways?

Indeed, the Klei Yakkar (Devarim 30:11) explains that one must not go back physically to the scene of the sin in order to prove his regret. True repentance is expressed through a regretful heart and proper Viduy – “B’phicha U’bilvavcha La’asoto.” Through genuine regret, one experiences the very same visual and auditory feelings experienced during the time of the sin. It is almost as if one was really there – reliving that awful experience. However, by actually putting oneself in the place where one has failed before – there is too great a likelihood of a repeat performance.

“Did I Grow or Not?”

It is important to recognize that the impact of feelings connected with a given setting can be powerfully negative as well as positive. This is why, for example, maturing dorm students who have largely succeeded in overcoming adolescent or childhood problems in their present growing environment are confronted with the very same nisyonot (tests and trials) they believed they had overcome when they return home for a vacation. The problem might have been arguing with parents or sibling rivalry. It might have been hanging around with the wrong friends or in the wrong places. Some may even start to doubt themselves, to wonder how much they’ve really matured since leaving home. But the truth is that they never actually grew up or overcame a negative trait in that negative setting of the past. Indeed, they might never be able to come anywhere near realizing their potential in that setting as well. It might take some more time to really get out of that mode in a healthy setting before returning to face a negative past.

2. Jewish Approach to Emotional Pain

V’Lo tono ish et amito (25:17).This verse teaches us that it is forbidden to use ona’at devarim, offensive and insulting speech. The Sefer Hachinuch points out that this does not pertain to the offended one prohibiting him from responding to the offense. Although one who remains silent upon being offended is rendered a chassid and is loved by G-d , however the Torah here does not command him to retain his silence. Human nature makes that nearly impossible.

The Talmud relates a perplexing statement regarding the offended. “Since the destruction of the Temple, all the gates of prayer are closed except for the gates of ona’ah and tears” (Bava Metziah 59a).We might have expected these heavenly gates to be open – first and foremost – to the prayers of the needy or the righteous.

Rabbeinu Bachye explains: “Since someone who was offended feels so hurt, so degraded, and humbled by his pain, he prays from his worried heart with fervor – and is heard.”

G-d‘s Wide Shoulders

Indeed, pain caused by hurtful words can be worse than physical pain or monetary loss. An offended person feels “emotionally alone,” and when he turns to G-d for support, G-d will be there for him. Intellectual or rational consolation usually does not heal an emotional wound. What’s needed is emotional support and acceptance. G-d, in His kindness, will provide this if the offended really believes that He is there.

The power of a genuine tearful prayer is unmatched. The Rebbe of Pashische asked a provocative question about the Gemara we are discussing: If the gates of ona’ah and of tears are never closed, why have gates at all? The gates are there – the Rebbe explained – for those tefillot where the tears are not genuine, shed by a person who doesn’t really believe that the Creator is the only true address for all support.

Broken Hearts

It is said in the name of the Kotsker Rebbe that there is nothing more whole and pure in the entire world than a broken heart. Like the law regarding purifying earthenware utensils – “shviratan zu hi taharatan” (purification is achieved by breaking them) – the heart is purified through being broken. Only then, with his pure and broken heart, will one embrace his relationship with G-d.

In Parashat Bechukotay (26:41), the Torah itself explains that all the klallot – the frightening curses addressed to the sinner – are intended to break the stubborn sinner’s heart (O az yikana levavam ha’arel). The Almighty wants our relationship with Him so much that He is willing to do whatever it takes to re-establish it. But if we instill humility into our heart on our own, we will not need any of these klallot.

In connection to this, I’d like to share with you a story I heard about twenty years ago which has had a lasting impact on me. Everyone was in shul awaiting Kol Nidrey on Yom Kippur night except for the rabbi. He had been grossly insulted by one of the congregants, and simply could not face the congregation.

Into the rabbi’s office walked one of the shul’s dedicated and wealthy members. Seeing the rabbi with his face in his hands, he realized that the rabbi had been insulted. The bright fellow offered the rabbi $5,000 to buy the insults and the tears we all need before Yom Kippur. Understandably, the rabbi refused.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky sh’lita told a couple who were childless for twenty years that he is unable to offer them segulot or brachot. Not willing to accept their lot, the tearful husband and wife pleaded with him that this should not be their fate. Rav Chaim responded that the most powerful prayer on earth is that of one who did not respond to being humiliated. The prayer of such a person has more power than even the blessings of the greatest rabbis. Indeed, the couple was given this “opportunity” shortly afterwards, and merited a son within the year!

Shabbat Shalom

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah
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