Judaism Your Way


Focusing the Heart

Focusing the Heart
by Dan Yolles

In my rabbinic studies at ALEPH, I have been reading and learning Mishnah Rosh Hashanah from Seder Moed (one of the books within a book so to say). If you told me 5 years ago that I would be reading and decoding Hebrew from the Mishnah it would be hard for me to believe! But I’ve begun to carve out great meaning in my personal and professional Jewish journey and would love to share a little bit with you!

But first, what is the Mishnah? The Mishnah is the earliest major recorded work of oral Rabbinic traditions, and was compiled around 200 CE. It discusses laws and traditions surrounding agriculture and the food we eat, when and how to celebrate holidays, civil and ritual laws, post temple rules, and more. It addresses these topics by often using very specific examples to describe and apply different rulings, and by presenting arguments between influential Rabbis. It contains stories, and quotes the Torah, and other biblical writings to build their arguments and rulings. It is divided into 6 books and within those, 63 tractates, or sections each discussing specific topics.

The one I am studying, Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, generally covers specific rules surrounding using the moon to tell time and set when festivals, holidays, and months start and end. This includes rules about how and when to observe Rosh Hashanah, one of 4 Jewish new years. I was struck by a section that talked about the rules around hearing the Shofar blast. One line said ‘when he focused his heart, he has fulfilled, but if not, he has not fulfilled (M. Rosh Hashanah 3:7)’ meaning if one hears the shofar and they are fully present, connected to the moment, to the sound, and their heart is in it, the mitzvah of hearing the shofar is accomplished, but if one is not paying attention, not fully present or aware, they miss out.

traditional medical image of snake

The Mishnah later goes into a Midrash or biblical interpretation to expand the meaning beyond hearing the shofar and fulfilling a mitzvah. It references a story in the book of Exodus when the Israelites were in battle with an enemy and every time Moses lifted his hand, they would prevail and every time he put it down, they would fail. Then another story from the book of Numbers that told of when the Israelites, who were bitten from below by snakes sent upon them, looked up to a fiery snake on a pole, they would be healed! (You might recognize the serpent on the pole when looking at a medical symbol!)

The Rabbis in this Mishnah interpreted this by saying that every time the people looked up to the heavens, opened and focused their hearts to Divine connection, they became whole, complete, connected, successful, at peace. The way I see it, when we tune into our hearts, notice and follow those feelings we get and feel, notice signs we see around us, bring our awareness to the energy, blessings and spirit we send out and receive, it can lead us to success, fulfillment, completeness, wholeness, self discovery and exploration. But it is not always easy and painless. Sometimes there are enemies we need to struggle with from within and along our life’s journey, or there are snakes biting at our feet, pressure, stress and pain. But we still must look up, look forward, and direct our hearts.

This clicked for me. I couldn’t help but think about where I am now, and how much I owe to lifting my own heart, connecting with the Divine, opening myself to the gifts and energy in the 4 worlds around me, the battles I’ve been through, the bites I’ve sustained, and where I am now.

Living in this moment in time, happily with my wife Ali.

A first year rabbinical student at ALEPH.

Here, with you, Judaism Your Way.

Surrounded by the most supportive and connected team I’ve ever experienced.

A part of a beautiful, rich, diverse, and lively community.

Teaching and mentoring amazing young pioneers embarking on their own Jewish journey.

Sharing my love of spirituality, music and Judaism.

I feel at home.

With my heart focused and my upward gaze, I am looking forward to what is to come here with all of you.

Dan Yolles
Open Tent Be Mitzvah Educator
Student Rabbi