A lthough we are now in the 2010s, we don’t have to look back centuries to find legendary sources of Jewish wisdom. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) was one of the most important scholars of our generation and is regarded as a significant factor in helping make Judaism relevant in the modern age. We close out this first month of 2011 with a special opportunity to spend Sunday, Jan. 30 immersed in Rabbi Kaplan’s practical wisdom at the 7th Annual Day of Kabbalah at the JCC (jccmanhattan.org/makom). Here are some of Kaplan’s words to live by for the 21st century.
Locking On: The Genius
Within Reach Of Every Person
When I was a graduate student in nuclear physics, I was once working on an extremely difficult mathematical problem for a paper. I became totally involved in the problem and worked on it for almost 72 hours without interruption. … Anyone who has ever worked on a difficult problem, especially in mathematics or the sciences, knows that at a certain point the mind seems to “lock on” to the problem. At that point, solving the problem becomes the most important thing in the world, and every fiber of one’s being is concentrated on find¬ing the solution.
I use the term “locking on” since this is a subjective feeling that one has in the kind of problem solving that I am describing. When one is locked on to a problem, there is tremendous, almost sensual joy in solving it. It is possible to go without food and sleep, to dismiss all fatigue, until the problem is solved. Beyond this, it appears that one can call forth intellectual resources of which one is usually totally unaware.
I also remember a period during which I was painting. … Whenever I got involved in a painting, it seemed that I was also “locked on” to the project; I would find it extremely difficult to leave it. Again, I was able to create paintings that were surprising even to me. It appeared that when I was creating, I was going into a higher state of consciousness. … I felt as if I were thinking in an entirely different mode.
Ordinary people consider works of genius beyond their reach, but this might not be true, since the creator himself may be surprised at what he produces when in a “locked-on” state of consciousness. The degree of creativity that one has, whether in art or in problem-solving, may be several orders of magnitude greater when one is in a “locked-on” state than when one is in a normal state of consciousness.
– Aryeh Kaplan from “Jewish Meditation” (Shocken Books, 1990, p. 28)
When we pray we must realize to whom we are praying, as it says in the Talmud, “When you stand in prayer, know before Whom you stand.” When we say, “Blessed are You, O Lord,” we must know who “You” is, and we must realize what we mean when we say, “O Lord.” When we read the words of a prayer, we are not merely reading words in a book. We are speaking to Someone Who is listening to our words and to heart.
In the Tractate of Brachos (13a), the Talmud tells us that we may pray in any language, since it is preferable to understand the words that we pray. Jewish prayer is not an exercise in uttering meaningless words; it is speaking with God from the very depths of the heart and being. Read slowly, understand what you say, contemplate the words, and realize to Whom you are saying them.
Prayer, whether it be in the synagogue, or in the innermost recesses of the heart, is not something to be taken lightly. When we pray we are speaking to God, and nothing is beyond His power. God has promised us, “Call upon Me, and I will answer you, and I will show you great and mighty things such as you have never seen before” (Jeremiah 33:3).
It is the chance of a lifetime!
– Aryeh Kaplan, from “Encounters” (Moznaim, 1990, p. 41)