Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Standing Before God and Walking in God's Ways.

As a follow up to my last post on the word Omed in the context of apprehending HKBH, I have been thinking about several other places where this idea clarifies a text and we also get an insight into Rambam’s thought. The Gemara Sanhedrin 22a reads-

דאמר רב חנה בר ביזנא אר"ש חסידא המתפלל צריך שיראה עצמו כאילו שכינה כנגדו שנאמר שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד

Rav Chana bar Bizna in the name of Rav Shimon Chasida says, the person that prays should see himself as if the Shechinah is in front of him as it says in Tehilim 16, “I set God always in front of me”.

In Hilchot Tefilah 4:16 Rambam based on the Gemara legislates as follows:

כיצד היא הכוונה--שיפנה ליבו מכל המחשבות, ויראה עצמו כאילו הוא עומד לפני השכינה

How does one concentrate [during Tefilah]? He clears his mind from all thoughts and sees himself as if he is standing in front of the Shechinah.

Rambam here changes “I set God always in front of me” of the Gemara to “sees himself as if he is standing in front of the Shechinah”. It has the same meaning as “while you, stand here with Me” that God told Moshe after the Sinai experience. Tefilah is part of the process that leads to apprehending God.

I will now commence to show you the way how to educate and train yourselves in order to attain that great perfection. The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read Shema, and do not content yourself with being intent when you read the first verse of Shema, or the first benediction [in the Amidah]. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Law or listening to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear. After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing; and to have your attention directed exclusively to the reflection on what you are listening to or reading. When this too has been practiced consistently for a certain time, cause your soul to be in such a way that your thoughts is always quite free of distraction and gives heed to all that you are reading of the other discourses of the prophets and even when you read all the benedictions, so that you aim at meditating on what you are reading and at considering its meaning.” (MN3:51)

The idea is to eventually train ourselves to be focused and spend as much time as possible thinking about God and our role as individuals, as a nation and as human beings in the universe God created. An example of such a state is portrayed in the story of Sodom where Avraham realizes that its destruction is nearing. He enters into a prophetic discourse with God about the fairness of the situation where righteous might be swept along in the destruction. Avraham struggles with the idea. Here too the word Omed is prominent. The internal prophetic debate Avraham has, is depicted as beginning with -

וְאַבְרָהָם--עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.

But Abraham stood yet before the LORD.

And ending with –

כז וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם, בַּבֹּקֶר: אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם--אֲשֶׁר-עָמַד שָׁם, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה.

27 And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD.

It is during that prophetic state, while he was “standing” before God, that Avraham debated with God trying to understand the oncoming tragedy. Just before describing this internal struggle, the Torah makes the following statement -

יט כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה

אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה,

לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יְהוָה עַל-אַבְרָהָם,

אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו.

19 For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.'

Rambam talks about this verse in many places and sees it as one of the central underlying themes of Judaism. Avraham teaches his descendants that the goal of man is to get to know God and follow in His path doing righteousness and justice. This speculation about God’s ways, a constant full time endeavor, triggers the cogitations about Sodom as Avraham “stands” before God.

We also find a similar idea in Zechariah 3:7

ז כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, אִם-בִּדְרָכַי

תֵּלֵךְ וְאִם אֶת-מִשְׁמַרְתִּי תִשְׁמֹר, וְגַם-אַתָּה תָּדִין

אֶת-בֵּיתִי, וְגַם תִּשְׁמֹר אֶת-חֲצֵרָי--וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ מַהְלְכִים,

בֵּין הָעֹמְדִים הָאֵלֶּה.

7 'Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in My ways, and if you will keep My charge, and will also judge My house, and will also keep My courts, then I will give you free access among these that stand by.

Walking in God’s ways is “standing” in front of Him.

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