By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director
Many of you are familiar with the quote from the great French philosopher Rene Descartes who said, “I think, therefore I am.” It is an interesting concept however, Jewish tradition is somewhat different because our approach is more like… “I thank therefore I am.” I had this realization the other day as I was talking to one of our participants who had just finished a long trek in the desert and said to me, “I will never take running water for granted.” It was such a simple statement, and yet so powerful.
For most of our lives we are moving at such a fast pace that we simply take many basic things for granted. Later that day, I met two teens who had just finished sleeping in a Bedouin tent in the Judean desert as part of our program before hiking up Masada. While one might think that sleeping on a thin mattress underneath a goat hair tent in the middle of the desert with fifty other teens would be challenging, these two teens said, “I could stay here forever.” When I asked them why they spoke about the sand, stars and the powerful quietude of the desert. This summer there are so many moments of discomfort and yet, it is precisely during these same moments (once we get through them), that inspire profound gratefulness and consciousness.
When Abraham Joshua Heschel was marching in Montgomery, Alabama for Equal Rights he said, “My legs are praying.” This idea of “my legs are praying” is true for NFTY in Israel too, but on a different level. As these young people hike and walk through this country, they are being exposed to so many different landscapes, situations and ideas that invite them to encounter new worlds and old civilizations but, at the same time reflect about their life back home. When we reflect in this sort of manner it is in essence like prayer. After all the word in Hebrew for prayer is להתפלל L’Hitpallel, which is a reflexive verb that means to self-reflect. So much of this summer is in part discovering new concepts, but also re-evaluating everyday occurrences we knew from before and never really thought about deeply about – like running water, sand, or the stars at night.
This is type of reflection is such a basic part to being Jewish. Every morning when we wake up, the first prayer we traditionally say is מדה אני לפנך Modeh Ani Lefanecha which means I give thanks before you, oh God. It is absolutely remarkable that the first words in the Jewish prayer book begin with a moment of consciousness to be thankful for actually have woken up. The Jewish service then continues with being thankful for the most basic gifts like seeing, hearing and walking, all miracles that most of us take for granted. It is taught in the Talmud that a Jewish person should utter one hundred blessings a day. But what is important here is not the number of prayers we say, rather it is that we come from a tradition that tells us that it’s important to be spiritually perceptive.
As our teens conclude another week in Israel and we move into Shabbat, we know they will have time to self-reflect through traditional Jewish prayer, as well as look back on the week where they realized even running water can stand out as a miracle. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”
Wishing all of you a Shabbat of wonder, self-reflection and of gratefulness.