The essence of Judaism — truth and humility

The essence of Judaism — truth and humility

“Both in private and in public, a person should always be in awe of the infinite, acknowledging the truth, speaking truth in one’s heart. And upon arising one should declare: Master of all worlds: Not upon our righteousness do we rely, but on your great compassion. What are we? What is our life?…”

This is one of the warm-up meditations in our siddur (it’s from Siddur Lev Shalem) that prepare us for entering into morning prayer. I have chosen to render the Hebrew words “yiray shamayim” as “in awe of the infinite” (or of infinity), because I sense that shamayim (literally heaven), that which we see when we look up to the sky, is really the awe of sensing the infinity of the universe. Looking up at the sky at dawn, when this meditation is spoken, we see the darkness of night, the fading starlight and moonlight, gradually giving way to the light of the sun.

Were we to meditate deeply on these words, on these thoughts, we would not be in a hurry to move on to the next paragraph in the siddur. Rather, we would allow these words to penetrate into our deepest consciousness. They would help us to look at ourselves and judge ourselves on the basis of two essential character traits: truth and humility. Do we, in our daily lives, acknowledge and live by truth, both to others and to ourselves? Do we stand up to falsehood and mendacity when we encounter them ? Are we able to speak truth to power? Is truth at the very core of our being?

Do we live with humility? With the awareness of our smallness, the limited nature of our lives in the context of the life of our planet, the life and the enormity of the universe? We ask ourselves, “What are we? What is our life? Our goodness? Our righteousness? Our power?” Rav Kook interprets the Hebrew term for humility, anavah, as the realization that we can never achieve completeness of any kind, spiritual or concrete. We are limited by the fact that we are human, limited creatures. By accepting our limitations, we have, as Rav Kook tells us, a more realistic, “healthier and stronger” sense of ourselves.

That first meditation — what are we — leads not to pessimism about our lives, but rather to great optimism. As the Jewish people, “we are partners to Your covenant: descendants of Abraham (and Sarah)…Isaac (and Rivka)…the congregation of Jacob (and Rachel and Leah)… How blessed we are: how goodly is our portion, how beautiful our inheritance…”

Were we to think deeply about the words of this prayer and their meaning for our lives, we probably would spend a good part of our morning on it. The rest of the congregation would have finished and gone home long ago. But we would have achieved something real: We would have had a true meeting with the One of our lives, the One who was, is and who will be, within us and around us. With the Chay haOlamim, with the life force of the universe.

We would have been, in some real way, transformed by our prayer and meditation.

We would have prayed.

Rabbi Aryeh Meir of Teaneck is a member of Congregation Beth Sholom there.