Tallit,Tefillin and Contemplative Anxiety - Feb 2009

Jeremiah 46:28
 What are we afraid of?
How do we know if God is with us?
How does an awareness of God’s Presence banish our fear?

Contemplatives can often be very anxious people. It is the dark side of having an active “interior” and spending such a great deal of time looking into it. The Elijah of the “Cave incident” comes across as an anxious worrier to me. Teresa of Avila’s prayer begins: “Let nothing worry you, Let nothing frighten you” which implies she was a worrier herself. Nachman of Bratslav seems to have been bi-polar but demands that we never despair. But its no wonder, really, that these spiritual role models “heard” God speak words that commanded them not to fret and worry too much: Either we are so full of our own self-importance that we become egotistical perfectionists….or we become paralysed in fear from a sense of our own inadequacy and fail the little tests God sends. We ourselves often need to hear the words, “Don’t fret, just do your best”, even if they have to be spoken by our own lips.
Some people are forever allowing anxiety to possess them. They have a very hard time settling themselves into a sufficiently calm state that they can start to pray a liturgy, let alone meditate or enter into a contemplative dialogue with God. We fear so many things if we let ourselves: Death, Life, falling ill, losing dear ones, poverty, being ignored, losing our sense of purpose, losing our faith. If we are in Israel we fear the hostile neighbouring nations, if we are in the Diaspora we fear the emerging anti-semite in our neighbourhood. But most of all we fear The Future, The Unknown. 
I remember writing about this in an anthology edited by Rabbis Lionel Blue and Jonathan Magonet: 
“When I was eighteen, I was on my way to buy some potatoes in Dial Road, Tranmere. It was early one winter evening and the crossroads (which was as busy as ever) had to be negotiated in two stages with a pause at the central reservation.As I waited for a gap in the traffic, my meditation on the evening menu was interrupted by a blinding flash. It was not a Pauline revelation- I had been hit in the rear by a speeding car.Stunned by the hit and run, I pulled myself together and walked nonchalantly into the vegetable shop where I was greeted by the waiting customers with a mixture of gaping stares and consoling gestures. They were surprised at my composure. I was surprised by their great concern.They told me that I had been thrown into the air, turned half-somersault, and had bounced off the bonnet of the car. I had simply not registered the details of the collision.You see, because I had not seen the approaching vehicle, my muscles were so relaxed that I had escaped without any lasting damage. I was a very lucky man that night! 
Sometimes, we waste so much time worrying about the bad things that might happen to us that we tense up spiritually and forfeit our flexibility and resilience. Perhaps if we relaxed a little and stopped imagining the worst, we might then develop the resilience to face real disaster should it take us unawares.” 
(“Kindred Spirits”: Lionel Blue and Jonathan Magonet, HarperCollins 1995. page 254. ) 
There are many things about the future which we cannot change. The good news is that, whereas outside factors are very hard to change (like the waves against a boat, they go where they will and their strength is not something we can tame) we CAN change our perception: choose the direction in which we steer the boat; choose when to drop anchor till storms are past; choose whether to row frantically to create an illusion of progress or not; choose whether to let the storm take us where it will, or choose to struggle against it-and so on and so forth. Countless options which all give us incredible freedom and power really.

Nevertheless, the future does often frighten us and sometimes we are overcome by both specific and general anxieties. But there are strategies that can help. There is no “cure” that will make our problems go away, but there are remedies which can alleviate the symptoms!

The remedy for fear is fourfold: Remembering that God is ultimately the master of all, even things which may appear to be difficult and painful; having confidence in ourselves whenever we are doing our best even if our achievements seem paltry; not projecting our lives into the future but seeing the present as the most important time for us to be “concerned about”; and being strong in the knowledge that God has promised to be with us.
These together comprise bitachon- confidence, hope, and trust. Both in our selves and in God. In the contemplative life, they do not mean “security”. They represent an informed trust that is born of a positive hopefulness which we ourselves are required to maintain. Fortunately we get some help: Signs of the Presence. 
Some “signs” are seen in the “little miracles” of Providence, synchronicity, or serendipity that announce special windows of opportunity; sometimes they are hidden in everyday events which are perceived as being extraordinarily numinous. 
Other “signs” are to be found amongst the ritual mitzvot like “Jewish sacramentals”. These are the “signs and remembrances” which can give meaning to the present and hope for the future. They place the events of Israel’s historical past before our eyes, on our hearts, and even on our homes.
Parshah Bo contains our first biblical reference to mezuzot (Exodus 12:7) and tefillin (Exodus 13:9) and numerous references to the institutions of the Passover festival. These are all mitzvot which serve to “remind us” that we were “taken out of Egypt with a mighty hand”. We might add to that list the institution of the Sabbath and the very text of the Sh’ma itself. Shabbat is a forestaste of the “World which is to come”, and when we say or chant the words of the Sh’ma in prayer, we make God “really present” to ourselves and Sinai enters our world as He says: 
“I am The One Who Is: 
Your God, 
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 
to be your God. 
I am The One Who Is. 
Your God.” 
Numbers 15:41 
These are some of the ritual means whereby we attempt to make God present in our lives. They are a form of anamnesis: of making something actually present by an act of focused remembering.
 Mezuzot and Tefillin are “signs” and “remembrances” by which we commemorate the Exodus, the historical redemption of Israel from slavery under Pharaoh. Simultaneously, they bring to mind our moment-by-moment redemption from slavery to anything which is narrow-minded or powered by anxiety.
 There is a secondary sense in which the mezuzah, tefillin, tzitzit, tallit, and even the simple modern custom of wearing a head-covering in prayer are all “signs” to others that we are engaged in a relationship with God. Principally, however, they are there for an individual’s personal benefit. 
Donning a tallit and performing the complex ritual of laying tefillin are acts of prayer in themselves. When praying alone and without any pressure to hurry, it is virtually impossible to perform either of them without being led into wordless communication with God. They are undoubtedly a gift to contemplatives who often find themselves too “dry” to speak, too chatty to shut up for a minute, or too fidgety to stand still. 
When we use them they may sometimes produce a sensation that we are “near God”. Even on those occasions when we “feel” nothing of that, we can still be comforted by knowing that we are doing our best to “observe a commandment”. That, in itself, can bring us closer to Him (and to the rest of Israel) regardless of our emotional or intellectual “feelings”.
 Of course, these ritual acts are meaningless without the observance of commandments of social action and tzedekah and I am not suggesting that ritual commandments are magical invocations or amulets. But they are more than just holy-sounding words or religious toys when they are part of a repertoire of sincere prayer. They are part of the mechanics of religious love-making but not that Love itself. 
So how do they bring us near to God/make God near and how do they help to dispel fear? 
Let’s look at two of them for a moment. 
Reminds me of the Law we have taken on our shoulders, even those parts we neglect or do not fully observe.

Reminds me how Elijah covered his face with a mantle at the mouth of the cave, aware that we are approaching a moment of encounter with God.

Reminds me how Elijah passes that same mantle onto those who would follow him. Elijah was childless, but as Jewish Contemplatives we are Elijah’s spiritual descendants.

Reminds me of the Cloud, the Sukkah, the Shechinah in which I want to lose myself, spreading over us like a tent and enveloping all Israel in a unifying embrace.

Reminds me that the four corners of the world are bound together to do His bidding, inclusive of Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzars. God is the only Monarch, so what is there to fear?

Reminds me that God’s mercy covers my imperfections, by blanketing my faults in this mantle, he sees not me but Israel.

Reminds me that God is my mother and when I need comforting he wraps this blanket round me to cuddle me. Some days I need that. Some days we all need that.

Male and Female He made us.
Male and Female He made them.First we are quarry willingly ensnared in a lasso. 
Then we become soferim as we lay the words close to our heart.
Next we become warriors as we bind our forearms to be stronger in battle.
As betrothed lovers we pause to bind ourselves to God our partner.
Next we place the Shin of El Shaddai as a Shield on our hand.
Or is it the Shechinah before our eyes?
 And so we are encouraged against fear of battle by binding our muscles in leather, warmed by tenderness and three-times enmeshed in a passion which can make anxieties dissolve, protected by His Name and Shield. 
Lest we forget who we are, we bind His words on our heads like a miner’s lamp to lead us through the labyrinth of contemplation.
We can touch this lamp as we pray and remember the angel who showed us the Original Light then tapped us on the forehead so that we would forget. We refuse to forget. Sh’ma!

Finally the reins.

Do they hang loose to show that we do not need either a rod or a staff to goad or restrain us? To show that we already know that we will go wherever our Master requires us to go? That we are committed and motivated to serve with all our might regardless of reward or punishment? 
Or do we hold them firmly ourselves to show Him that we intend to stand on our own two feet in His service and not expect to have everything done for us like spoilt children? Even if this means having to drag the unwilling parts of our being forward with force if we are to progress? 
Or do we slowly hold them out to Him for a moment, asking him to lead us gently forward even though we are afraid?
 For a moment we feel like a stallion, or is it a lamb led to an altar, or is it a Prince wearing a diadem no angel has borne?
 Looked at this way, the “sacramental” ritual signs are very much potential channels for the kind of thoughts that can lift us up out of the mini-depressions, anxieties, acedia, and even lack of faith that a contemplative must face. Though I have attempted to use words to describe them, their special beauty is that they are prayers of action. No matter how we feel we can still DO them.
 But as I have stated. They are not magic. Nor are they the only way by which we remember that “God is near”.
 The Haftarah quote which heads this commentary addresses us as “Jacob” and as “servants”. As “Jacob” we know that we have to confront and wrestle with God, our selves, and our anxieties in order to receive God’s blessing. As “servants” we know that we are His partners but also that we serve without pay, for the sake of heaven. As servants we have work to do.
 “Service” is also one of the principal themes of Parshah Bo. (The root AVD occurs over twenty times in it). It is used there to describe slavery, the service of court officials, and most importantly, the service which is “worship”. As Jewish Contemplatives, we leave behind the confinement and slavery of any spiritual Mitzrayim by performing/living our own particular service of worship. The same root-word describes each of those three, it is our perspective that has changed. Prayer is our work.
Moses says: 
"We will not know with what we are to worship the LORD until we arrive there (va-anachnu lo-nayda mah na’avod et ADONAI ad boaynu sha’mah)." 
(Exodus 10:26) 
We are not in the same position as Moses as we are no longer sacrificing livestock in our Avodah. We now know that our sacrifices are prayers and deeds…but we are often travelling into the contemplative desert without any clear idea of what might be expected of us. This can produce very real anxiety, and even fear if it involves major life choices. 
As God’s servants, the only way to conquer those fears is to confront them ourselves. 
The only help in this that truly works is God’s, and that usually consists not in the performance of “miracles” nor in the presentation of ready-made answers to our problems - but through a steadying awareness that He is “somehow there”, and “there for us”. When we are unable to feel this, then the only thing that can keep fear at bay is the hope that “we are doing our best”- and that’s where the signs of tallit and tefillin (for example) can assist us.
The ultimate sign of God’s Presence in our lives is not something that He gives us. It is something that we give Him: Our Trust in His promise that He will be with us. Yes, I know- yet another paradox. It is by saying that we trust God because He is with us (as we do in so many psalms, in the last verse of Adon Olam, or in the Havdalah) that we come to feel that Presence and the kind of confidence it brings.
 "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, then the LORD will become that man’s confidence. He will be like a tree planted near water, which spreads out its roots along a stream and does not fear when heat comes, whose foliage is always green; it will not be worried in a year of drought and it never fails to bear fruit."
 (Jeremiah 17:7-8) 
It’s a Trust that we “make” ourselves, but we have the Exodus for encouragement. And the Exodus is not something that happened thousands of years ago. It’s something, a sign, that is made “actually present by an act of focused remembering.
This post is an abridged and adapted version of a commentary on Haftarah Bo which recently appeared on the sister website “Community of Jewish Contemplatives”.

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