July 25, 2024
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July 25, 2024
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“Be, Become, Bless: Jewish Spirituality between East and West” (Maggid, 2019) has reached the bookstores, and now the philosophy and spirit of the Yeshiva of Otniel will be available to the English speaker. I was moved by the sweet and warm words that emanate through every page of Rav Yaakov Nagen’s book.

In 2001, I traveled to Pokhara, Nepal, to organize a Seder at the foothills of the Annapurna mountains. After celebrating Pesach with over 500 Israeli backpackers, I joined a few young men on their post-army trip for a three-week trek to the base of Mt. Everest. Our goal was to experience the awe and grandeur of the world’s highest mountain. During the day we hiked and at night we talked and sang around the fire. On Shabbat we stopped to rest at a guesthouse with breathtaking views perched on a mountainside. On Shabbat morning we got a report that snow was imminent, and while the base of Mt. Everest was very close, we still had to cross the Chole Mountain Pass. Climbing in high altitude,17,000 feet above sea level, is challenging in any condition, but with snow falling, the pass wouldn’t be accessible. My friends decided that they didn’t want to take the chance of having to wait for the snow to pass; they wanted to continue immediately. I wished them well as they set out ahead of the storm. I was grateful to be able to continue resting my tired bones from six days of climbing but I was a bit nervous about completing two additional weeks of hiking without my friends.

The storm never came, and after Shabbat I was set to continue toward the mountain pass. I joined a group of Tibetan monks who were on pilgrimage and I walked with them for several days. Every morning I would put on Tefillin and they would sit in meditation and then we would spend the following stretch of time trying to understand what the other was doing. I learned about mindfulness and how to use the breath in meditation to achieve a higher state of consciousness. We had so much in common: I was learning in a yeshiva, they were learning in an ashram; I was attending shiurim on the importance of putting the holy before the mundane in thought, speech and action, and here I was meeting people who had practical tools and strategies to help overcome the temptation of the mundane and banal by being in control of their mind. Ever since this encounter in the Himalayas I have tried to incorporate the techniques and tools taught to me by these kind monks into my daily life. I knew I had to learn how to be present. However, there was a disconnect between my religious practice, which included more doing and less focus on being.

One Shabbat morning at Congregation Rinat Yisrael I found an interesting book on the shelf of Mishnayot, written by Rav Yakov Nagen. I opened Nishmat Hamishna to discover a wealth of novel and deep elucidations of the Mishna, but what was most striking to me was the level of integrating in the Torah. Rav Nagen was delving deep into the halachic analysis of the words of the Tanaim to help glean the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the Halacha. Enamoured, I looked up Rav Nagean on the internet and I discovered his book on the parsha, להתעורר ליום חדש, “To Awake to a New Day.” I quickly got my hands on this book and found my worlds coming together. Each parsha took me on a journey of how to connect to my responsibility of� “doing” the call I have as a Jew to impact the world as the “am Segulah” while at the same time “being,” living in the moment, in the here and now, to be present and available to hear the words of God. I have studied Chasidut from many teachers, but I knew this was different. Rav Nagen is not nostalgically connecting to the past, but rather focusing on discovering a unique calling from within.

As a storyteller, I appreciate the powerful stories embedded in this work that seamlessly integrate with the depth of the teachings. I find that I can share Rav Nagen’s thoughts at my Shabbat table with my children, who admire the wit and wisdom of the stories, as well as ponder the unique reading of the pesukim with my wife as we discuss the paradigm shift that ensues from the novel interpretation. One of my favorite essays is on Parshat Chukat where the question is raised: Why was Moshe barred from entering the Land of Israel after he hit the rock? Rav Nagen explains that a leader can use his stick to coerce his followers (doing) or he can use his words to arouse the desire from within (being). As the nation of slaves maturates into freedom and they are ready to enter the land, they need a leader who can guide them to go through helping them find it within.

Rav Nagen compares the origin story of Moshe to the origin story of the Budha in “The Four Encounters.” As a prince, Gautama Siddhartha leaves the comforts of the royal palace and encounters an old man; he then encounters a sick man, followed by a corpse left on the side of the road. He discovers that the world is filled with pain and suffering. His fourth encounter is a man who overcomes the pain and suffering by living a monastic life, and from this monk he discovers enlightenment that one can overcome the suffering. Moshe also grows up as a prince, but when he leaves the palace he sees the pain and suffering of the Hebrew slaves. His response is to intervene and bring about justice; he stops the violence against the innocent. In Moshe’s fourth encounter God appears to Moshe from the burning bush and he takes upon himself the mission of changing the world through doing.

I had the great privilege of visiting Otniel and seeing Rav Nagen’s masterful teaching in action. I was touched by the warmth and dedication he showed each of his students. In addition to his novel teachings and being a caring educator, Rav Nagen also shows a deep commitment to working toward the mission of being a “light amongst the nations.” He connects rabbis, imams and priests to help people find common ground in the hope and dream that one day we will all live together with peace and prosperity. It is clear that his drive is enlivened by the authenticity he describes in his writings: the ability to connect and stand in humility to hear the words of God with הקשבה עמוקה, a deep listening to the teachings of the Torah in the here and now.

The interest in Jewish spirituality is ever spreading; Chasidut and Torat Hasod are becoming increasingly mainstream in the yeshivot across the spectrum. Often this renaissance is called Neo-chassidus but the label doesn’t do justice to the very different and diverse approaches bundled together under one label: There are the teachers attempting to apply the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings to today’s day and age. This often comes with a nostalgia and a desire to return to the past, which may be characterized as more authentic. Khakis and polo shirts are turned in for a shiny bekeshe. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Rav Nagen, an individual who does not busy himself asking “What would the Baal Shem Tov say?” but rather “How can I be present to hear the word of God that is relevant to me now.” The past has guided us to this point, but ultimately we need to find our calling in the now. In “Be, Become, Blessed” we are all given the invitation to become more attuned to our inner being, which invigorates our actions with a depth that imbues the world around us with blessing.

By Rabbi Yaakov Nadler

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