Build the Temple Without Using Your Hands
In these days of commotion and information overload, we relentlessly seek answers in the outside world. Endless questions arise about what it means to be a Jew, and how to join together to ensure our survival as a people. But despite all these discussions, there is increasing rancor, anger, and divisiveness in our community. At this point, we have almost reached a breaking point. We must find a better way forward.
But that deeper way isn’t far from us; in fact, it’s right in front of our faces. If we take a moment to return to original Judaism — and truly listen to and live the ancient teachings — a doorway opens. But to hear those answers, we must quiet our inner voices and really listen. This is the simple practice of Zen.
In Zen, we learn that if we go to a restaurant hungry and sit reading the menu endlessly, our stomachs will never be filled. Instead, we must order food, digest what is useful, and discard the rest. Only then do we have the nourishment we so deeply need. The same is true for Judaism today. Repeating words and theories endlessly won’t do it. We must take the teachings and live them — make them into our flesh and bones.
The basic prayer of the Jewish people starts with Shema Yisrael, “Listen Israel.” This is a vital injunction for us all to stop and listen. But listen to what? To the voice of God, which is addressing us continually. But how can we hear this voice if we can’t listen and be still?
The ancient rabbis took this seriously. They sat in silence for an hour, prayed for an hour, and then sat in silence for another hour. This silence was not a withdrawal from life, but an act of honor and wisdom. First they sat to be able to listen, to quiet the wild turbulent mind within. Then they entered prayer — a deep conversation with God. Why then another hour in silence? To be able to absorb and digest what had just happened and to “listen” for the response. The need to enter the silence has always been understood in Judaism, but is not practiced these days.
Zen is a practice of learning how to become silent and still, to develop the profound ability to be present, to listen, and to truly respond. When combined with teachings of Torah, a new life is right before us. We solve an inscrutable question. We see where the Temple truly is, and begin to build it without using our hands.
Judaism can be thought of as a conversation — between God, one another, and ourselves. In Judaism, God is not found far away on a mountaintop, but right at the kitchen table, with family and friends. And yet, wherever we go, we must take the silence with us. We must be deeply steeped in the ability to listen and respond. Otherwise, our words turn into chatter, noise, and distraction. They can be used to deceive, dissemble, and block the truth.
The great teacher Martin Buber said, “For a true conversation, not a sound is needed — not even a word.”
When we learn the great art of being still, entering the silence, and then turning to prayer, the static, confusion, and loneliness subsides. True guidance arises as we make room for God to enter our lives in a real and active way. A problem that was impossible to solve melts on its own, and wonderful new possibilities appear.
During this month of sacred festivals, let us all take the time to learn how to bathe ourselves in silence. What is the way to reunite as a person, a family, and a people? The answers will come when we listen.
Brenda Shoshanna, PhD, is a psychologist, author, speaker, and long term practitioner of both Judaism and Zen. She offers many workshops, including Build The Temple Without Using Your Hands (listening to the still, small voice within) — www.brendashoshanna.com, theonetent.com, zenwisdomtoday.com.