Yom Kippur: All of us together—Each of us alone

In the Jewish liturgy, there is a dynamic fluctuation between communal and private prayer. On Yom Kippur,we are  reminded that each of us is alone before G-d, yet we are standing before Him as one united body: Kehal Yisroel.

 In many of the commentaries on the workings of the Yom Kippur "process", the lack of genuine teshuvah (return in repentance) of just one community member has the potential to invalidate the acceptability of the prayer of the entire group. Fortunately, we believe in a G-d who is compassionate  and merciful to all of us and we hope that such strict Justice  will never be imposed upon us.  

We also believe  that the merits of the Tzaddikim can shield us from the rigours of that same strict Justice.   Similarly, the merits of the few truly righteous members of an apparently insignificant  small congregation  have the potential to elevate the spiritual standing of the entire community of Israel.  

  The dynamic inter-relationship of the individual and the collective is a concept that is dotted throughout the Torah. In Parshas Ahare Mos, for example, we read of the detailed instructions for the liturgy of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the Day for Atonement.  The proximate Parshas Kedoshim speaks of the ways we are enjoined to “love our neighbour as ourselves” (Vayikra 19:18).

  The two are, not surprisingly, very closely related: The ritual act of atonement consists in the three steps of (i) praying for oneself; (ii)praying for one’s  near ones; and (iii) praying for the wider community (Vayikra 16:17).  This process begins with a prayer for oneself but then moves on to two further prayers for others.  The first flows into the other two because that first self-focused prayer exists primarily to make our subsequent prayers for the community acceptable.

Prayer is one of the deepest and most selfless forms of caring for others that we are privileged to exercise as human partners in the Divine Plan.

It is a hidden activity which does not draw attention to the ego, and it can be exercised not just by Leviim and Kohanim, but by anyone with a good and pure intention. Such profound and atoning prayer may be performed in physical solitude or in the midst of a congregation— It is a paradox of Jewish prayer that it is always communal and (at its most profound) always a matter of an individual’s intimate communion with G-d.

 When it is performed in solitude one never prays “outside” the community, and when one prays in the company of other daveners, the real “business” still takes place in the sanctuary of one’s own heart.

In Vayikra we read the instructions for the High Priest on Yom Kippur:

“And there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he goes in to make atonement for the holy place, until he comes out after having made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel.”
Vayikra 16:17

Though the vast majority of halakhic commentaries on the liturgy place communal prayer in a firm position of superiority over individual prayer, and though the strictest and most physical conception of  “ minyan ” is the one which has prevailed to this day—the fact remains that the principal prayer in our principal liturgical ceremony, on our most holy day is  performed by a single individual in clearly commanded isolation.

He enters and prays alone, but (as his vestments underline) the High Priest takes the whole community on his shoulders and bears them on his heart.  So do we if we bind ourselves to the whole Community of Israel and to those we pray for.  We may pray alone, but if our prayer is to be true—we never pray without this awareness of the community.  It is for this reason—according to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov—that the Arizal recommended that one begin the daily services with the declaration.

“Hareini mekabel 'alai mitsvat asei shel ve-ahavta le-re'akha kamokha”
(I hereby accept upon myself the positive commandment to love my fellow as myself.)

If we pray with and in the community— we are remembering that our solitary prayers are always for the benefit of all.

We too can stand before the ark in that place of solitary pleading and encounter if G-d should choose that we might be admitted. We are not high priests and yet we are invited to stand in The Presence whenever we enter into liturgical or contemplative prayer with a whole heart—with burning deveykus and the intention to draw close our G-d.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said that a person who prays with sincerity is actually standing in the Holy of Holies when they pray, and that such a person’s upheld hands are like the wings of the keruvim above the ark.

Before davening, we bind ourselves in hiskashrus to the merits of those greater than ourselves in the hope that we may ourselves be elevated. Thus strengthened, our prayers may be of more use to those for whom we pray, and for those who may need our assistance.   In this context, it is said that Rebbe Mikhal of Zlotchov used to begin his davening with the prayer:

"I join myself to all of Israel:To those who are more than I,that through them I may rise-and to those who are less than I,so that they may rise through my thought."(M. Buber "Tales of the Hasidim" p150) 
In such a broad community of saints and sinners, we are never alone in prayer and we have a duty to make our contemplative lives an activity of community-focused chesed and atonement worthy of one such as Aharon the High Priest.

©Nachman Davies
Erev Yom Kippur 5778
(September 29  2017)

The Solitary Retreat of the Arizal

(An island on the Nile)
In celebration of the Yahrzeit  of The Holy Ari (5th Menachem Av)

There are those who claim that there is no place for solitary contemplative living in Judaism. The example of the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchok Luria Ashkenazi 1534–1572) would  suggest that this is far from being the case.

In many ways this giant of Jewish mysticism is actually one of the  greatest  exponents of meditation in solitude and a true exemplar of the  immense  value of a life of prayer and extended silent retreat undertaken  for the  sake of the  entire Community of Israel.

 The Arizal’s devoted disciple, Rabbi Chayim Vital (1543–1620), gives us  the  facts:

After he  was married, he spent seven  years meditating…with his  master, Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi. He then meditated alone for six years.  He then added to this, meditating…for two years straight in a  house on the Nile. There he  would remain alone, utterly isolated, not speaking to any human being.  The only time he  would return home would  be  on the eve of the Sabbath…But even at home he would  not speak to anyone, not even  his wife.[1]

This period of extended retreat produced a Kabbalistic system that revolutionised many aspects  of Jewish mysticism, but it also produced a man who saw prayer as a form of action that was  community-based.  Two famous quotes from his  teachings (again recorded by Rabbi Chayim Vital) should  serve  to make this clear:

Before beginning the recitation of any liturgical  prayer service, The  Ari  encourages all Jewish contemplatives to bear in mind  their place within the Kehal Yisroel by making the following declaration of intent:

Hareini mekabel alai mitsvat asei shel ve-ahavta le-re'akha kamokha 
(I hereby accept upon myself the positive commandment to love one’s fellow as oneself.)[2]

The second quote  from the teachings of the Arizal reads:

Even though a person may not have committed a [particular]sin, he must beg forgiveness and confess it...for if another Jew has committed this sin it is as if he himself had done it. For this reason, the confession is written in the plural. [3]

This concept is  a development of the Talmudic principle of “kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh” (all of Israel is  responsible  one for the other),[4] but in the Lurianic context it is stated as part of  his insistence  that the whole of Israel is  like One  Body.  For the Arizal, the contemplative  at prayer is engaged in a form  of tikkun to heal ailing parts of that body. One who feels  the suffering of the Community will merit seeing  the salvation of the Community.[5]

It is impossible for the authentic Jewish Contemplative  to separate from the community—even in solitary retreat we are always at its heart.

If we bind ourselves to the whole Community of Israel and to those individual souls that we pray for, our prayer in solitude becomes a community act.   When someone requests our prayers for a cause or asks us to daven for a particular person, and when we stand in deepest  liturgical prayer and beg for the union of The Name: all our praying is an act of love for the community.

Jewish Contemplative meditation is neither an anti-stress therapy nor an exercise in self-focussed escapism. It is a form of community service.     

When we pray with kavanah, we make an act of deveykus that binds us to each other  as well as to G-d. 

Nachman Davies
Menachem Av 5/ July 17 2018


[1] translated  by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and quoted on p159 of “The Way of The Jewish Mystics”, ed.Perle Besserman,Shambala, Boston &London 1994

[2] Pri Eitz Chayim,Olam Ha –Asiyah 1:3:2.

[3] Likutei Torah, Taamei HaMitzvos (Vayikra 19:18)

[4] Shavuos 39a

[5] Ta’anit 11a

The Torah of the Heart (2018)

ושמתם את־דברי אלה על־לבבכם ועל־נפשכם

“Therefore you shall lay up these words
 in your heart and in your soul.” [1]

   The ‘heart’ is our intuitive intellect. The ‘soul’ is our very life-force. The Torah of the Heart is eternally given and when we receive it intentionally, it produces a connecting link between our intellect and our life-force. Our tangible experiences and our spiritual perceptions are thus bound up with our essential soul root, and from there, bound up with our G-d. When we open up this channel we deepen our relationship with the Supernal Torah, because our obedience to the commands of the Torah would be incomplete if love and true internalisation were absent.

    G-d speaks to all of us via the Torah She-bi’chtav (Written Torah) and the Torah She-ba’al Peh (Oral Torah). He also speaks to us in our own prayers and in our own private meditation. When we read the scriptures with pauses for meditation or when we meditate in silent prayer, we are hoping to access the Torah of the Heart. 

   We know how and when we are called to action as a nation and as individuals through the words of the written and oral Torah—but we each receive that Torah according to our own abilities and character, and for this reason we also need to receive and digest those ‘words’ personally in the Cave of the Heart, alone with our G-d.

   The Kotzker Rebbe [2] tells us that the words of the Shema are ‘laid on the surface of the heart’ so that they may sink into those hearts which are truly receptive later on:

‘And these words which I command thee this day,shall be upon thy heart.’ The verse does not say: ‘in thy heart.’ For there are times when the heart is shut. But the words lie upon the heart, and when the heart opens in holy hours, they sink deep down into it.”[3]

   This implies that the ‘words’ are only received when they are reflected upon and internalised personally—we may observe the ‘letter’ of the Law, but we have not received it until we go beyond that letter to access its ‘Soul’. This is done most especially in silent contemplative prayer.

   I am reminded of a parallel example of this pre-condition for authenticity in the tale of the Baal Shem Tov’s encounter with the righteous and learned Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch. After asking the latter to recite holy words of Torah, the Baal Shem Tov declared Dov Baer’s recitation to be ‘correct’ but without ‘true knowledge’ because there was ‘no soul’ in what he knew.[4]

   I can remember when reel to reel tape-recorders and cassette players were a miraculous novelty. I can remember the invention of the internet and the shock of realising (so comparatively recently) that we have wireless and satellite infotech connections of such power and speed that the entire Tanach, Talmud Bavli, and Shulchan Aruch can be transferred onto disk and printed or viewed in any synagogue or home with sufficient resources. Only a few years ago, our world did not have the wonderful treasury of Sefaria.org, an ever growing (and free) online resource of Torah texts for all.

   We can watch and listen in amazement as many centuries of Torah commentary and study can be transferred from PC to PC, from personal email to personal email, and from smartphone to pendrive—in seconds. And by the time you read this most of those miraculous inventions will almost certainly be superseded. Even as I write, there are forms of bio-implanted data being developed and I suspect it will be years rather than decades before this is commonplace.

   Living in such an era, the traditional Jewish concepts concerning the transmission and the receiving of the Torah do not seem at all fanciful. Living in these times, we can easily comprehend the possibility that Moshe Rabbeinu may have received the ‘entire’ Torah in several intense instalments,[5] or even in less than a second. How much he may have been conscious of, or how much of it he understood personally at the time of revelation is, I think, another matter. Consequently, I have no difficulty in imagining the truth concealed in the tale that we each knew that same Torah in the womb—and that an angel tapped us at birth so that we should forget its Light in order to spend all our lives looking for it. [6] I also have no difficulty in considering that it is possible that,in one moment,our G-d can infuse our brain or soul with his pure word in a way that is currently beyond our comprehension—But not beyond our receptive capability, and not beyond our experience.

   The Baal Shem Tov suggests that the Torah can be fractally or microcosmically presented,[7] and many sources emphasise that the Torah we see is not the whole story.[8] In Kedushas Levi, Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev reminds us that:

“In fact, the entire Torah is G-d's name. It originally contained combinations of letters and secret mysteries that ‘no eye has uncovered’ (Yoav 28:7). In its descent to our lowly world, the Torah must become clothed in a material garment.”[9]

   The Zohar tells us that each one of souls of Kehal Yisroel has ‘their own letter’ in the Torah.[10] Interestingly, the Talmud Yerushalmi posits that this refers to letters in the primordial Torah written in black and white fire. [11] The Arizal concurs with this view and adds that by contemplative activity one can actually access the way one’s soul root is linked to that letter/spiritual particle in the Supernal Torah in order to set up a channel of blessing on all worlds. [12]

The Sfas Emes [13] writes:

“The essence of the Torah is G-d’s pure light shining to us through its Hebrew letters. They are spread throughout the universe, and the Jewish people are assigned to find them.” [14]

We all stood at Sinai. We all heard the Voice. The Words of the Living God have been laid upon our hearts, and they are a form of data which our intuitive hearts can access.

   The ‘data’ which forms the ‘daat’ I am referring to here is a bit like having the Talmud and the Tanach on our soul’s hard drive. There may be thousands of ‘words’ we have yet to read, or yet to understand—but they are there—and we can choose to ‘click on’ them to open their ‘folders’ if we want to.

   One might even say that just knowing that they are there inside us is an act of ‘spiritual knowledge’ even though we may not realise it on an explicitly conscious level. The Torah which we had seen and known in the womb (and before) was not erased. It remains in our soul’s storage system for us to discover anew—letter by letter, word by word, line by line.

   We may be the type of people who need to discuss our lives with G-d frequently as though He were at our side. We may be the type of people who prefer to use the texts of prayers written by other people when we want to get closer to Him. We may be the kind of people who prefer to discuss His Words in the company of other humans. Or we may be the kind of people who can’t bear to do much of any of these activities, yet find we meet Him most intimately in acts of compassion and charity, in the ordinary events of an apparently ‘secular’ life. All of these can be the way one hears and reads the Torah of the Heart.

But for the Contemplative?

Well, we are those who need, more than anything, simply to turn the receiver on and let G-d broadcast to us. We may not hear what He is saying in a way that is clear, but we can sense that, by being thoroughly attentive, we are doing what we were created to do. Standing or sitting or walking in contemplative prayer; praying the liturgy; performing ritual mitzvos—in our small way, we are attempting to both study and practice the Torah of the Heart. When we lay tefillin and bind the written texts of the Torah on our head and arm we make a highly symbolic statement to underline this process:

“Therefore you shall lay up these words in your heart and in your soul and you shall bind them for a sign on your hand and as frontlets before your eyes.” [15]

   When we lay tefillin, the Pure Words of the Supernal Torah are transmuted, laid-up, and stored in the file-system of our ‘heart and soul’. The ritual is like a daily program update that renews and refreshes our communication with our G-d. Perhaps as ‘signs’, tefillin can speak to us more clearly than words. Perhaps these ‘signs’ are closer to the ‘Pure Words’ of G-d Himself than we realise. Perhaps they are laid-up (stored) in the file-system of our ‘heart and soul’ because it is only there that we can ‘hold’ all of His Torah.

   The Torah of the Heart is the medium whereby the Supernal Torah is revealed to the individual soul. The task of the contemplative is to make this explicit by intentionally running to receive it daily.

©Nachman Davies
     3rd June 2018

(An extract from the first draft of a new book: “The Cave of The Heart” which Nachman Davies is preparing for publication.)


[1] Devarim 11:18

[2] Rebbe Menachem Mendel Of Kotzk (1787-1859)

[3] ‘Tales of the Hasidim’ vol 2,page 278;; Martin Buber; trans. Olga Marx; Schocken Books Inc; New York, 1949

[4] See ‘Tales of the Hasidim’ vol 1,page 99; Martin Buber; trans. Olga Marx; Schocken Books Inc; New York, 1949

[5] Gittin 60a-b. see also Berachos 21b

[6] In the Midrash Nidda 30b

[7] Ben Poras Yosef 23b states that the entire Torah is included in every single word. Other sources cite the Baal Shem as saying that the entire Torah is present in a single one of its letters.

[8] Notably Tikkunei Zohar 21b. Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620) conceptualises the facets of the Torah as “PaRDeS” (pshat-remez-drush-sod).

[9] In Kedushas Levi: Parashas Beshallach. The idea is also to be found in the Zohar at ZoharII:87a, and III:98b as well as in the Ramban’s “Introduction” to his Torah Commentary.

[10] Zohar Chadash, Shir HaShirim 74d

[11] Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 6:1, Midrash Tanchuma (Bereishis 1)

[12] This idea is expounded at length by the Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz 1555-1630) in Shnei Luchos HaBris.

[13] Rebbe Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905)

[14] Translated by Moshe A.Braun in ‘The Sfas Emes’, p70; Jason Aronson inc; Northvale (1998)

[15] Devarim 11:18

Shavuos: Torah is my bread

The festival of Shavuos is sometimes thought of as being unusually short. In the Diaspora it lasts two days and yet Pesach and Sukkos last for eight.

But actually it is possible to view it as being the longest rather than the shortest of the pilgrim festivals, for it is also called Atzeret-the completion of Pesach-and its name 'Shavuos' refers to the 'weeks' we have counted between Pesach and the climactic festival day.

The rabbis reflected on the many connections between the festivals of Pesach and Shavuos, but the one which has come into my own mind this year is the symbol of bread. 

One of the central observances of Pesach is our eating  matza (unleavened bread).
One of the central symbols of Shavuos is bread as a Temple sacrifice.

The distinguishing special offering of the biblical festival of Shavuos is the wave offering of two loaves (Leviticus23:17). It is both a Thanksgiving and a Theological statement.

Because it involves the highest level of human intensive labour  to produce it, bread is unlike the offering of fruit or natural produce or the sacrifice of animals.  Not only does it need its ingredients to be  nurtured and grown, it also requires several further milling and culinary processes before it can be  called 'bread'.

In our daily prayers before meals we notice an apparently inaccurate statement that blesses G-d 'who brings forth bread from the earth'.  Many have commented that it should perhaps read 'brings forth wheat', but all have acknowledged that the choice of words is no mistake.

The Voice of Sinai is the Voice of G-d Almighty- He is the All-Powerful One who can do anything.  The One who actually does everything, if only we could see things as they really are.

When we hope that our petitions in prayer will have an effect on the world, when we ask G-d for assistance and strength in our own troubles and trials, when we perform acts of contemplative prayer that we hope will bring the Light of the Torah into our earthly dimension, we are declaring with confidence that G-d is not a concept, nor a pious traditional focus of community intentions, nor a distant but unconcerned force... but that He is the One who is the Ground of Being and the Breath of Life. 

Though we are potentially G-d’s partners, and though we are potentially His hands and feet in this world, it is important to remember that without His Will, without His Breath in us, without His blessing on our heads, nothing can be done for no thing would exist.

Some things are done by the act of man. Some things are done by the act of man working in hopeful covenant with G-d. But actually, in reality...all things are done by G-d. Yet, in this process,our prayer is both necessary and an effective. It is channel for the inspiration that leads  to action, and as spiritual action, its power is the effect it has on the worlds we cannot (always) see.

In 'The Cave of the Heart' (Kuntres Ma'aras Ha-Lev), I expressed this by saying that 'contemplatives' are in some sense  G-d’s 'mind' in the world, and that without our lives or our activity there would be a certain waste of human potential in the context of the Divine partnership-plan for all Creation.

This Shavuos may we remember the Festival wave offering of bread, and thank the G-d of Sinai by making our prayer itself its contemporary re-presentation:- the korban of 'bread' that brings Him closer to our 'World'.

 To paraphrase Pirkei Avos 3:21, may we say:

                       “Torah is our bread. Our bread is Torah.”

As we prepare that very special 'bread'- may we also remember that the prayer we offer, with all our heart, is simultaneously His Voice Speaking.

                       “We will do, and We will hear” (Vayikra 24:7)

Nachman Davies
May 12 2010 / May 18 2018

(The illustration which heads this article is from the Flickr album of angerboy)


Tu B'Shvat: Contemplative Roots and Branches

On the “Fifth Day” of the tale called “The Seven Beggars”, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells us of a “Tree that stands beyond Space”.  This image has many overlapping and layered meanings in Breslov, many of which are explored  by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his translation of the Tales.  These include (among many others) the concepts of  the Garden of Eden, the role of the Tzaddik, the symbolism of the Temple, and the Gathering of the Exiles.  But to me—more than anything"The Tree that stands beyond Space" is an image which highlights the “Place” of encounter between the contemplative and the Divine as being a state “located” in the One who is Ha Makom, the only true place.

When we are engaged in contemplative study and prayer we are “taken out of” this world and “re-located” in the Heart of all worlds. We may be under our tallit or seated in solitude on a park bench. We may be sitting on a bus with our eyes closed or digging in a garden with our minds engaged in a wordless communication with the Creator.  We are "nowhere" because we have entered the Holy of Holies which is beyond measurement or geography.  And yet we have located ourselves at the root of the Tree of Life. Its branches are the performance of the mitzvos. Their function is to bring the rising sap to the  four corners of the world, and to bear fruit beyond the limits of our individual consciousness in whatever way G-d may desire.

I am writing this on Tu B’Shvat—the festival of the  New Year for Trees. Recently, I came across an extract from a liturgical poem which appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is called the “Parable of the Trees”  and it reads:  

One day the Trees of Life will put forth a shoot which will become the Everlasting Plant, for they take root before they grow and extend their roots toward the stream.
And the Plant will open its stem to the living waters and will become an everlasting source of blessing.

But now all the Well-Watered Trees tower over it,
For they grow as soon as they are planted,
But their roots do not extend towards the stream.

And the trees that will one day put forth the holy shoot of the plant of truth-
These trees are hidden away;
Their secret is sealed, it is not valued, it is not known.

For You O G-d have hedged in its fruit on every side
With the mystery of angels, creatures of might, of holy spirits
And a whirling, flashing fire.”
(in Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse page 187)

Perhaps the Kabbalah tradition holds something of that  guarded secret which the “Trees of Life” value. In his Sefer Ha-Rimmon, Moses de Leon quotes this midrash:

“Sleep is an unripe fruit of death
A dream is an unripe fruit of prophecy.
The globe of the sun is an unripe fruit of the Original Light.
The Sabbath is an unripe fruit of the World-to-come.
Torah is an unripe fruit of Supernal Wisdom.”
(Bereshis Rabbah 17:5)

and then  he makes the following commentary:

Look! The root of Torah is supernal wisdom-hidden and concealed, perceived only through its wondrous pathways. How wondrous are the offshoots!  But since the root is wisdom, who can ever reach it.   That is why Israel’s sweet singer sang: Open my eyes, so I can see wonders out of your Torah!”
(Trans. D.C.Matt in Essential Kabbalah p.145)

This reminds me of a favourite extract from Rav Avraham Kook:

"One way of learning Torah for its own sake is [to do so in order] to enrich the Community of Israel with great spiritual powers.
The more that the light of Torah increases, so that with one heart the people of Israel appreciate and respect it, the more that the fundamental power of our nation gains strength and firmness.
And the individual soul of the person who brings about this universal blessing itself grows and gains glory, gains completion and beauty, with a multitude of fresh branches.  And it sends forth a multitude of powerful roots, through which it takes root amidst the roots of the Tree of true life."  

    (trans. Yaacov David Shulman in  Orot Hatorah 2:4 )

Whether we celebrate a Tsfat-style seder for the festival of Tu B'Shvat or not –we can all make it a day of contemplative study of the Tree of Life, the Torah which is written on our heart. 

Nor is this something which is confined to this particular day. For "The Tree" which is beyond Space is also beyond Time.  The Torah is given anew in every moment and we only need to "turn" towards it to show our desire to dwell on its branches or in its shade. There is a miracle here.  Through no merit of our own, and by the unfathomable will of our G-d, we are capable of being "re-located" in the Heart of this Tree at any moment.  

 May our prayerful study “send forth branches and roots”.

Nachman Davies
reposted from 7th February 2012


Hanukah: Contemplative Action

"Hanukah in my Hermitage"

Each year, we read the Joseph narrative during the Hanukah season.  People often comment that the tale is not so much a story of man’s relationship with G-d as one which focuses on family relationships. It does not seem to focus on the notion of “Divine intervention” unless we choose to see it at work through the various dreams. Thanks to a brilliant commentary on Mikeitz by Nehama Leibowitz I can see that this is not really the case. She highlighted that perfectly when she pointed out the emphatic re-iteration in the following verses from Bereshis 41:

In verse 25:  “What G-d is about to do he hath declared to Pharaoh”
In verse 28:  “What G-d is about to do he hath shown to Pharaoh”
In verse 32:  “and G-d will shortly bring it to pass”.

Similarly, in the following parshah,  Vayigash  we read that, though the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, Joseph ascribed the real authorship of this action to G-d when he said:

“G-d has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”
(Bereshis 45:4-7)

The extent to which we should rely on “G-d’s action” and the extent to which we should rely on “human action” is at the heart of the history of the festival of Hanukah too.

In the festival Haftarah, the menorah vision of Zechariah (Zech.4:3) describes two trees which flank the candelabrum and which provide the oil. One is taken to be Zerubabel- a messiah figure for the secular and physical, and the other is taken to be Joshua - a messiah figure for the priestly and spiritual. They are two complementary forces seen as separate in methods of action but united in purpose.

In the written history of the festival’s origin, the tale of the Maccabees ended up in apocryphal documentation and not in the Bible. The first book of Maccabees focuses on the Rebel/Zealot movement’s victory which was attained by physical force, while the second book focuses on the ideological cause and martyrdom of the Pietist movement’s faith in the spiritual or supernatural.

Again, we see here two very distinct attitudes sharing a common purpose.

Perhaps the Haftarah’s message is not so much that action and prayer are complementary but that they both need something else, something more, in order to be “in-spired” - in order to have the “Breath” or “Spirit” of G-d in them - namely an explicit connection with G-d Himself. Taking that point of view, the text might be read as:

“Not just by the might of political action
Nor just by the power of spiritual faith
But by the spirit of G-d which joins them together
in effective and complementary balance.”

In the developing and rather confused history of the festival of Hanukah, it was not so much the Maccabees’ victory or the Pietists’ martyrdom that was placed centre-stage: The rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) placed the miracle of the long-lasting oil in that prime position. In doing so they were choosing the “spiritual and miraculous” emphasis. I think that is also the intended meaning of the Haftarah quote. Might and Power are predictable yet fallible. Breath and Spirit, inspiration and revelation, can be wildly unpredictable, but they can sometimes act as their beacon: a ner tamid which lights the way forward. It might also be a beacon which warns of a way not to be taken—and it can, at times, be a reminder of being ever in the present in spiritual constancy.

Despite Jacob’s vow in Bereshis 28:20, I do not know to what extent I should rely on God to provide for me, I do not know to what extent we should believe that our prayers have a direct effect on the progress of the cosmos (from assisting our friend’s struggles in illness, to world politics), I do not know to what extent we should fight wars to achieve anything believed to be “good”. Despite choosing to walk a comparatively quietist path, the working out of this “Maccabean enigma” is a work still very much in progress for me, and no doubt for you too.

But I do feel that it is the specific duty of the dedicated Jewish Contemplative to be the “Joshua”, the “Pietist”, above all else and to declare explicitly that all is in the hands of heaven. It is unrealistic for anyone to think that all Jews be both Joshua and Zerubabel, some specialisation is both inevitable and beneficial.

Both trees feature in the vision that feeds the lamp.

A contemplative’s special task is to pray… and if that is done, it is my hope that “action” will be done:
by G-d as a “miracle of inspiration”;
by G-d through “human hands”;
by G-d through the miracles of His Providence.

As the daily Modim prayer reminds us, those miracles are not confined to the festival of Hanukah but are with us at every moment of every day.

Nachman Davies
(first published: December  22 2016 )

Rebbe Nachman's Yahrzeit: AZAMRA

The Yahrzeit  of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is the fourth day of the week of the festival of Sukkos (Chai Tishrei).

To celebrate this day, and in honour of Rebbe Nachman (may the merits of the Tzadikim shield us) I am posting  the score of a short musical composition which I wrote many years ago for the Breslov community, together with a few thoughts relevant to the texts used.


However successful we may be (or appear to be)-  there are always times when we fail to do what we aspire to do. We often fail to approach “perfection” let alone attain it.  We may also fail because we do not have the abilities or skills we wish we had. 

But failure and disability are not always what they seem and if we have done our very best in the spiritual life, it really is not just “second best”. 

In the contemplative life, our intention and our effort are more important than all else. Being able to see the potential of whatever we are blessed with (and making the best use of it) is the greatest gift we can be given.

One of the favourite expressions of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was   “I will sing to G-d with the little I have left”.    It is actually a psalm text (Psalm 146:2).   You can read his interpretation of that text in Likutei Moharan 1:282. 

I am not qualified to make comment on his exposition there—  but I can tell you what the phrase meant to me at the turn of the millennium:  I had, just then, finally begun to realise that my encroaching deafness meant that I could no longer function as a performing  and teaching musician.

I had been a school music teacher for over twenty years and that realisation took some getting used to. It actually took me four years, but I am well over it now and see the whole development as Providential— for if it had not happened I might not have been quite so compelled to listen  to the Still, Small Voice in contemplative prayer. 

The song I needed to sing was an internal one. We all have such a song written in the notation of our genes--and each person has their own melody—though it can often take an entire  lifetime to discover it.

At that time, the shock of becoming deaf helped me to become  aware that the "little time I had left" was diminishing rapidly, and that I had been given a wake-up call to make good use of it.  

As an expression of this realisation in teshuvah,  I resurrected an old composition I had written setting the text of Azamra in conjunction with a poem written by "Motele", an eight year old Jewish child during the Holocaust.  Its message was one of unquenchable optimism and a determination to make the most of things:

"From tomorrow on I'll be sad, not today.Though stormy  winds may blow today,Tomorrow's sun may drive them all away. And every day,no matter how bitter, I will say:From tomorrow on I'll be sad, not today."


            Here then is the musical score:
- To see each page clearly you will need to click on each separate page in turn.
- Click on each page to open them in a new window.
- Click  again to  enlarge to full size..

(Notes: The musical reference to the klezmer song “Spieltshe mir a liedele” is deliberate.  The work has yet to be performed:- I am totally flexible with regard to instrumentation, but would always recommend that the melody is sung by a child and not an adult. Metronome marks are just guidelines and may be over-ridden.)

Azamra l’Elohai b’odi  
(I will sing to G-d with the little I have left)

At those times when we are examining our response to the Divine call to  contemplative prayer,  “The little we have left” may refer to the years of life we have but it may also refer to our “abilities” in prayer or to the amount of time in a day or week or month that we are able to devote to developing an intimate relationship with Hashem in hisbodedus and hisbonenus.

To overcome any lack of fervour in our lives of dedication we should dig deep to awaken and raise up even the smallest , dormant spark of devotion which might lie buried in the lower reaches of our soul. Such sparks can be roused and fanned into a blaze of  life if we are prepared to make the effort.

We can beat back laziness, anxiety, and ingratitude by declaring “Azamra!”--however short our prayer sessions, however rare our retreats in solitude, however wrapped up in our families, or jobs, or secular studies we may be--what matters most is not the quantity of our contemplative actions and practices, but the dedicated and contemplative quality of our lives themselves. G-d sees the heart.

V’taheir libeinu l’ovdecha be’emes.
O, purify our hearts that we may  truly serve You.

Nachman Davies
Oct 8 2017