This is part 1 of a 3-part post I wrote for the Applied Jewish Spirituality blog about discovering the time and place for daily meditation in morning prayers.
My Hebrew name is Akiva ben Ariel. Akiva comes from Yaakov, ‘the follower’, in Genesis; Ariel being my father’s Hebrew name.
My dharma name is Kyojin, meaning ‘abiding in compassion’. I received it from my Zen teacher during jukai, a 700-year-old lay ordination ceremony, which culminated my years of study of Soto Zen Buddhism.
In the summer of 2019, I was studying in an intensive program at the Conservative (Masorti) Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had. Here’s a brief account of my discoveries from that time.
Last year in Jerusalem… struck by a teaching of Rabbi Kook, explained to us passionately by Yiscah Smith, one of the yeshiva teachers. The Lord, she said, in creating you, has given you a unique spiritual path, and thus it is your religious (!) duty to follow your authentic path, and to remove any obstacles that might obstruct it. At once, my decade-long spiritual wanderings and the deepening faith are united; the exact junction of my life illuminated.
Last year in Jerusalem… led into nigunim, wordless incantations sung acappella as a group, by the young, charismatic nigun teacher Joey Weisenberg. Our voices rise and fall, merge and separate, and after losing the count of repetitions (10th? 20th, 30th?), the measured, controlled sense of time falls aside, replaced by the sense of peace and shekhinah, the divine presence, right here in the heart of Jerusalem, which carries me like a cloud.
Last year in Jerusalem… transported 2,000 years back into the times of King Herod with a tour of underground tunnels, as I stand fifty feet below the crowded Old City on an excavated street running alongside the wall of the Temple. The street is narrow: I can physically touch the Temple wall with my right hand, and the stone beams of a house across with my left, while my feet are planted on the well-worn but intact cobblestone. Who were my ancestors that would walk these steps bringing offerings to the Temple? What offerings am I bringing?
Last year in Jerusalem… discovering the architecture of a Talmud page in a class taught by the charismatic Rabbi Joel Levy, and then battling over the meaning of each word, each phrase, with Sam, my havruta partner, as we join our skills – his in Hebrew and Aramaic, mine in literary analysis. And then the raucous discourse accumulated over centuries begins to take off the page: opinions, stories, fables, barbs flying back and forth and into outer space.
Basic color-coding of a Talmud page:
Mishnah(Palestine, 3rd century CE)
Gemara(Babylonia, 5th century CE)
Comments of Rashi(11th century, France)
Comments of the Tosafists (12th-13th cent., France/Germany)
Comments of R. Nissim ben Jacob (11th century, Tunisia)
Last year in Jerusalem… leading my first mincha (afternoon service) after a couple of weeks of basic training; my voice rough from a lingering cold, cutting the air of our study hall, which doubles as the yeshiva’s daytime synagogue. When after the first couple of lines, others are beginning to join in, I feel elevated because this is happening, the communal prayer – I can do it, I too can make it happen.
Last year in Jerusalem… a Shabbat dinner set on a balcony overlooking a winding, leafy street in Baka, a neighborhood southwest of the Old City. Our prayers, laughter, and the clicking of the wine glasses are echoing the prayers, laughter, and clicking of the wine glasses from the balconies next to ours and across the street. After dinner, our hosts take us for a stroll through the quiet, carless streets of a million-soul city, teens congregating in groups, adults conversing with each other, and I feel thankful for the experience and wistful to be in a place where this could be every Friday night.
Last year in Jerusalem… praying at the egalitarian section of the Wall by the Robinson’s Arch. Here, at sunrises on Wednesdays and at sundowns on Friday nights, away from the crowds and the hubbub of the gendered sections, I experience an intense sense of connection to the divine. With familiarity, my eye picks out one rectangular stone among many, the one with a subtly redder hue, as if beckoning me towards my unique, pre-determined path. If there is a spiritual center of the Universe, this is it, this is the ground zero.