Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for July 8th, 2009|Daily archive page

David Brooks Discovers Dignity

In Uncategorized on July 8, 2009 at 2:07 pm

So do the readers of the NYT! His latest op-ed piece rates as the most emailed article of yesterday’s paper. Here’s a snippet:

(George) Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems haveto be created to balance and restrain their desires.

This is an idea that is at least two thousand years old, as it says in Pirkei Avot

Who is considered mighty, one who conquers his impulses.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

I would never use the term artificial systems because the struggle between impulses and a moral, or higher calling is a natural one. The desire to serve an ideal is as deep and natural as any other impulse. It is called a desire for a reason, and it is natural for human beings to wish to be good, just as it is natural to be selfish and narcissitic. The notion that we are flawed is also a natural conclusion from the intellect. This is not just a minor point, but it goes to the heart of the matter. Is hearkening to our better angels an artificial action to control who we really are? Or is the impulse to do so the process by which we become who we really should be. The distinction I think is a serious one.

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Why does the word "Amen" loom so large?

In Uncategorized on July 8, 2009 at 10:12 am

It is true that the things that are most common to us are often the things we know the least about. They are part of our natural routine and so we don’t question them. For many, the intricacies of breathing only become understood when that process is interrupted. Otherwise, there are many of us who happily walk around totally unaware of the science behind that which allows us to function.

Our spiritual habits are no different. People say אמן or “Ayyymen” all the time, assuming they both know what they mean and what it means–or maybe mindlessly parroting an accepted mimetic tradition, and knowing neither.

Last night, in the late summer of my years, I learned and then taught about the importance of this one word–not only in liturgy, but in everyday discourse.

The word Amen makes a brief appearance in the Talmud. It is a word with power. Resh Lakish says when said with gusto that it opens the gates of heaven. Ben Azzai cautions with a severe warning that one should never “orphan” an Amen, but it should always be connected to a bracha. Amen means nothing on its own, but becomes powerful only when it is responding to a blessing.

Well, what is it doing? What does it mean? What are we doing when we say it? Most people when they say amen are affirming what has been said to them. But it is more than that. Amen is an acronym for Al Melech Ne’eman אל מלך נאמן (God, the faithful king) and by saying it we affirm that all God’s promises will eventually come to pass.

People often improvise their own wishes in life where people affirm these impromptu blessings with an enthusiastic Amen. They are indeed affirming the words of the speaker, but they are also bearing witness that the One who created the world is in charge of fulfilling these wishes. We, impudent snots that we are, invoke Him even in circumstances where we are implicating Him in promises He has not made. It’s a sort of spiritual activism in which one should engage with some care, for a misplaced Amen the Gemara says, is a dangerous thing.

Amen is testimony. Amen is affirmation. Amen, at its best is done in response to others, so Amen does not only connect us to God, but our relationship with others–it is an opportunity to unify the commandments between people and God and the commandments between human beings in just one word.

No wonder it can open the gates of heavens.