Thursday, October 29, 2015

Teshuvah, Tefilla, and Tzedekah

This week, I've been writing about "prerequisites" for beginning a merkava practice. The first three I talk about are tzedekah, tefilla, and teshuvah. I thought I'd share some excerpts.

There are three classic virtues(1) required of anyone who wishes to undertakes merkava. These are tzedekah, tefilla, and teshuvah. While they are often translated as “charity, prayer, and repentence”, but I think that these are deeply flawed translations. As Wittgenstein says, "the limits of language are the limits of thought", and so I will try to explain each word at length.

Tzedekah (צדקה‎)

"Tzedekah" is usually (in this context) translated as "charity".   Almost no one actually thinks "charity" is a good translation. Literally, the word means more like "justice" or "righteousness". (A "tzeddik" for example, is a righteous person (who is often understood to have goodness-based super-powers; basically, a "saint".) The Lubavitcher Rebbe, for example, said "’Charity’ commonly means alms, gratuitous benefactions for the poor. The giver of charity is a benevolent person, giving when he need not. He does not owe the poor anything, but gives because of his generosity. ‘Tzedakah’ has a completely opposite meaning. Instead of connoting benevolence, it is the idea of justice - that it is only right and just that one gives tzedakah.” (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, pp. 409-411) I more or less agree with him. However, even more so than “justice”, I like to think of tzedekah (in this context) more broadly as “right action”, or “action in accord with Creation”. I have been taught that there are five basic components of tzedekah:

Respect for Creation. The world we live in is a beautiful, magical, wonderful place. Whether humans are intended to be the stewards of the world or not is a matter of endless theological debate, but the fact of the matter is that we exercise unprecedented control over our environment, both personally and collectively, and that de facto makes us its stewards. As my father would say, don’t shit where you eat.

Generosity and non-covetousness. Give freely. Everyone has things they do not need (time, money, space, whatever), and everyone has needs they cannot meet themselves. My parents taught me that among the highest forms of charity is to give to people that others will not. While teaching adorable, clean, well-fed eight-year-olds to read at the local elementary school is a great thing to do, there’s no shortage of people willing to help. Teaching imprisoned drug addicts to read makes an immediate, powerful, and life-changing difference in someone’s life, and the ripples out to make a powerful difference in many other people’s lives as well. Similarly, try not to take more than you need. We all have an inner pack-rat, a desperate, gluttonous hoarder who whispers that there is never enough, that we could lose everything at any moment. Don’t be that guy.

Careful Speech and Listening. In Judaism, the term for gossip (or slander) is “lashon hora”, the “evil tongue”. Like the evil eye, the evil tongue, speech born out of malice or jealousy, has a real, lasting, negative impact on the speaker, the listener, and the subject. For the magician, more so than anyone else, having a "good tongue" is important. A sorceress is only as good as her word.  If you expect the things you speak into being to be true, you need to watch your fucking mouth.

Compassion. It's easy to imagine that compassion is about being nice to everyone all the time, but that isn’t so. Compassion and mercifulness are about the knowledge that you do not deserve to be loved, and neither does anyone else. Love is a thing so powerful, so amazing, that no person could possibly ever deserve it. No one can earn it. You have no right to exist; the world would probably be better off if you (and I, and people in general) weren’t here at all. And yet, we do exist. Because love. Because compassion.  The sun shines on all of us, warm and generative, making no judgements or discernments between us. Divine Compassion (grace) is just that; the warmth of the sun on the murderer's face. And that’s what compassion is too; shining on others, regardless of whether they deserve it or not. I strongly recommend a practice called metta meditation. It will make you happier.

Community-mindedness. It's easy, especially the way we live now, to sequester yourself, so that you only think of "me and mine". So many of us live, essentially, alone; either by ourselves or with only our immediate family. Tzedekah calls on us to understand our behaviors in terms of others; to prioritize the community (both our immediate community and our global community) and not just ourselves, not just our family, not just our friends and neighbors. At root, it's about understanding that our personal experience is very different from other people's, that other people's needs are different from our own, and yet all those people, no matter how different, ARE kith and kin. To overly prioritize your immediate community (your family, your neighborhood, your religion, your tribe, your race) is just as hateful, spiteful and selfish as to value only yourself. We're all in this together.

Tefilla (תפלה)

Tefilla, as I understand it, means literally "to attach oneself"; it's almost always translated as prayer, which, really, is as good a translation as any other I can suggest. Here is what I have been taught about prayer:  There are four kinds of prayers, "Wow!" "Thanks!" "Please!" and "Why!".

When you are awestruck, pray the prayer of awe (Wow!). Find wonder in the amazingness and horribleness and grandeur and horror of the world, and give that wonder a voice.

When you cannot be awestruck, try to pray the prayer of gratitude. (Thanks!)  If you're reading this, your life is almost certainly better than that of the vast majority of people who have ever lived.

When you cannot be grateful, pray the prayer of petition. (Please!_There's nothing wrong with asking for a hand when you need it.

And when you cannot do any of those things, pray the prayer of accusation. (Why?!?) Scream and yell and cry and denounce G-d for having abandoned you. Because fuck that guy, that's why(3). :)

Teshuvah ("return" or "repentance") is the most complicated of them. I'll write some more about that on another day.


1) “Virtue” is such a troublesome word. It’s taken on such an onerous connotation; it brings to mind oppressive chastity and sanctimony, but that’s not what I mean at all. I mean something more like the Greek word “arete”; excellence of character. You can still hear this use of the word “virtue” in a sentence like “By virtue of our humanity, we all yearn to learn and grow.”

2) A traditional Yom Kippur prayer (unatenna tokef) tells us that these three things can “avert the evil decree”. 3) Someone once told me that some people are for the god(s), and some people are against the god(s), and those are both excellent options, but that no one is without the god(s). (Team Against, represent!)