Friday, May 25, 2018

Parashat Naso: We Need Each Other to Be Blessed

May God bless you and keep you. May He shine the light of His face on you and show you grace. May He lift up His face toward you and grant you Peace.

The priests bless us through these words. The priests are the conduits through which God’s blessings -- blessings of prosperity, protection, light, grace and peace – physical and spiritual blessings, both – they are the conduits for these divine blessings.

Why do we need intermediaries? Why can’t we each simply say: “May God bless me and keep me. May He shine His light on me and give me peace. “ Why can’t we draw down these blessings by sincerely asking for them ourselves?

Because we can’t be fully blessed on our own. It doesn’t work that way. We are not each just separate individuals with a separate path to God. God created the world in such a way that we are dependent on one another to receive His blessings. Maybe there are some small individual pipelines to God, but the major pipelines are joint. We have to help each other receive blessing.

“I get by with a little help from my friends.” This week was Senior Night at Atlanta Jewish Academy. I was struck by how many seniors said about friends, family and teachers that “I wouldn’t be here today without you.” Hyperbole, I thought. Each of those kids did the work on their own, got themselves through high school.

But the past two weeks I have been having experience after experience that teaches me that those seniors are right, and I, too, am only here because of the kindness of others.

A few times, I have been thrown into the pit of my own anxiety, despair or insecurity by something that has happened, and each time, what brought me out – as much as I tried on my own – what brought me out was a kind word from a friend or partner. I felt like I was drowning and someone passed by and saw and offered me a life preserver ring, drawing me out, back to light and life, with kindness.

The Talmud in Brachot 5b tells three stories about Rabbi Yochanan and visiting the sick. In the first and last story, Rabbi Yochanan is the one who visits – he comes and helps “raise up” the sick person to wellness. But in the middle story Rabbi Yochanan is not the visitor, but the one who is sick and suffering. Another rabbi comes and helps him. The Talmud asks – if Rabbi Yochanan could help others, why couldn’t he help himself? Answer: “A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”

We are all prisoners in some way, stuck in the trap of our own minds and egos. We cannot get out of these prisons ourselves – often, we can’t even see what is wrong on our own. We need another person to lift us up, to free us, to show us the way.

It is an old truth but one I am just beginning to really understand; it’s not that some people are great and can do it on their own. No one can, and it is a problematic myth to think that we can. We all need each other. We need each other to buoy us in times of trouble and we need each other to draw blessing down from above. We are all priests for one another, calling down the blessings of prosperity, light and peace, and freeing each other from prison in a way that only another person can do.

May God bless you and keep you. May He shine the light of His face on you and show you grace. May He lift up His face toward you and grant you Peace.

I am grateful to those who lifted me up this week and helped me see God’s shining face.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Parashat Kedoshim: Be True to Your Best Self

Elokay neshama shenata bi tehorah hi. We each have a pure soul, a piece of the divine inside us, our best, highest self. But we often forget this soul, forget our roots above, in the daily mess of life here on earth.

What it means to be kadosh, as the Torah enjoins us this week, is to remember this higher aspect of self. Kedoshim tehyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeikhem. Be holy because I, Hashem, your God am holy. Our holiness stems from the mirroring of God’s holiness in ourselves, from our knowledge of our connection, our source, above.

This sense of remembering our higher selves is expressed in many of the laws:

Keep Shabbat – a weekly reminder of your connection above, as you stop the business of this-worldly achievement to be attuned to the soul.

No idol worship -- Don’t get involved in worshipping other things in the world that don’t really matter and take you away from your true self. Don’t be confused about who you are.

Leave the corners of the fields for the poor -- Yes, you need to be involved in the world, but in doing so – when you grow things in the ground or on trees – don’t rush like an animal to eat it all up. Have dignity and compassion and love for others. These are the higher sides of yourself and you need to uncover and develop them through constant limitation and giving.

Do not curse a deaf person. Why? He won’t hear you anyway. Ah, but it will affect you – it will debase you, the speaker, take you away from your true elevated self. To lie and to cheat others are similarly degrading, a debasement of the kedushah that lies in each of us. It’s not just that it’s wrong to hurt others; we are better than that. We should hold ourselves to a standard of dignity and love, be mirrors of the loving holy God who created us.

The parsha repeats again and again the reason for all these laws of kedushah -- Ani Hashem Elokeikhem. I am Hashem your God. Certainly there are other ways to interpret this phrase, but this year, what it says to me is -- Remember who your God is; remember who you are and where you came from; be true to this mirrored image of God in yourself; be true to your highest self.

Read this way, the constant enjoinment ani Hashem Elokeikhem becomes not a threat – I am the God who will punish you if you don’t follow My laws – but a source of encouragement and hizuk (strengthening). You can do this. You already have inside you what it takes to be holy and good and loving and dignified. You are already connected above. All you need to do is remember that connection.

Remember that connection in every aspect of your life. Not just when you are in shul davening, but also when you are in your fields harvesting grain or in the supermarket buying apples or eating breakfast on the run or doing the dishes or interacting with a colleague or client or child or other driver. Kedushah means bringing God into the world by remembering who we are at all times, remembering our pure soul from above, letting that knowledge seep in to every detail of how we act and every moment of our lives.

Friday, April 20, 2018

For Yom HaAtzmaut: Shuli Rand's "The Poet" and the Journey Towards Peace

In honor of Yom HaAtzmaut, I taught a song of Shuli Rand’s in the high school this week called Hameshorer, “The Poet.”

The song tells a story about Shuli Rand, a Haredi Israeli singer, and a friend of his, a famous secular Israeli poet. In the song the two meet while swimming in a pool and again on a city bench. Both times they connect and converse but end up in argument and discord over religious questions. “You said no. I said yes. If I said there is, you laughed, there isn’t.” The second time, Shuli says they almost end up coming to blows over the argument. A huge gulf opens between them.

The song begins with argument but ends with peace. In the final scene, the secular poet is sick in the hospital, “entangled in frightening tubes” and Shuli comes to visit him. This time, they talk little. Shuli says, “I had feelings. I had no words.” They both sense the end is near. They both see the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, above the poet’s bed. They do not speak. They cry together. Shuli blesses his friend: Sa Leshalom. “Travel in peace.” And the friend answers: “Amen.”

Peace. Shalom. How do we move from argument to peace? Shuli Rand shows us here. The answer is Shekhinah. Not just Divine Presence, but human presence. Perhaps we can even say that the Divine Presence is drawn down to earth in places, as here, where humans are being present for one another. There is a quality of presence here that we don’t normally achieve. It is presence beyond words and beyond the ego involvement of an argument. Beyond -- I’m right. You’re wrong. We each need to defend our positions. To be present is not to be right but to care, to connect. The illness of the poet helps them see what matters, helps them see their shared humanity and mortality and understand that to be right is not as important as to love, to connect, to be at peace with another.

Ideological divisions abound in this world. What ultimately drives peace may not just be national or international work, but simple encounters like the one described in this song, person by person, in intimate and less intimate relationships, simple everyday encounters where we learn not always to assert our views with words and arguments, but to cry together, to feel together, to be present and connected, simple encounters where we ask ourselves – do I want to be right or do I want to be at peace?

Sa Leshalom. May we all be travelling daily toward peace and presence.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Reflections from the Second Generation: On Torah and the Shoah (Talk Given at Young Israel of Toco Hills)

When I was a child, brushing my teeth at night, I would set up little tricks for myself in order to make sure that the Holocaust did not happen again. If I was very careful about closing the lid of the paste or putting it on the right and not the left side of the faucet, then I could be sure to stave off the likely event of another Holocaust happening at any moment. This was magical thinking, born of a very deep fear that has always lived inside me.

My father was born in Krakow, Poland in 1934. On September 1, 1939 he was 5 years old. He was with his mother and two younger sisters, ages 3 and 1, out in the countryside enjoying the end of the summer in my grandmother’s childhood shtetl home of Mishlinetz. His father was not with them that day, as during the summer, he would stay in the city to work during the week and join them in the country for Shabbat. That Friday in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and the trains were taken over by soldiers so he was not able to rejoin them.

My father and his mother and sisters survived the war in Siberian slave labor camps. They were evacuated from the Polish countryside into the Ukraine and taken from there by the Russians as slave labor, part of a large group of Jewish refugees, quote “saved” by the Russians, though at the time they thought they were the unlucky ones. They endured their own suffering.

But we were asked to tell one story – and I want to share the story of my grandfather, who was left behind in Krakow. He ended up in the Tarnow ghetto. My dear cousin Lala chronicled what happened to him there – alone in a small room, he was studying Talmud one day when Nazi soldiers passed by and saw him with the Talmud through the window. They ordered him out into the courtyard and barked at him to sweep the floor. They shot him in the back while he was sweeping.

I chose this story because it gives me something positive to hold on to, to live for. The legacy of the Shoah for me has been primarily a deep sense of fear, depression and insecurity about the future. A part of me knows with certainty that the world is primarily evil – that evil is likely, at any moment, to swallow up the good. My dreams are like Pharaoh’s –yes, there are fat cows – that’s how we live now – but eventually the skinny cows will eat up the fat ones. This I know. That is the way of the world, and especially the way of the Jews. My father, too, lived a good life before the war. I expect my own life or worse, my children’s or granchildren’s lives, to be disrupted at any moment by war and persecution.

That is the dark side, the abyss I stand next to, circling, at all times. I am thrown back into it by an article about the horrors of the American prison system or the Syrian refugees or the rise of white supremacists. Any sign of evil triumphing can throw me.

I struggle with the question – what can we do to prevent this? How can we stop evil from triumphing in the world? How does one tip the balance to the good in this world? What is my role in particular? I don’t want to play toothpaste tricks anymore. I know things can’t be controlled, but I want to play my part for the good.

There are many answers and I admire those who have chosen other responses – helping other refugees, being strong about the State of Israel, fighting injustice in all its forms, healing and helping people in many ways.

But the reason I chose the story of my grandfather’s shooting is because for me the answer that has become clearer and clearer over the years lay in my grandfather’s hands just before he was shot – Torah. Torah is the antidote to evil in the world. Ki lekah tov natati lakhem. Torah is goodness. A good teaching given by the ultimate Good One to help us slowly, over time, uncover the true goodness of a world created out of love. Torah is the tool to tip the balance. Perhaps not today, perhaps not in our lifetimes. But slowly, one letter at a time, we effect the world through Torah.

In the end of the day, I do not believe that those Nazis killed my grandfather. He was attached to something above death, beyond denigration, something true and eternal and elevated and strong and steadfast in the face of evil. I attach myself to this same chain, to this same eternity. I am comforted and strengthened and energized. And sometimes, when I am studying a piece of gemara, I can feel my grandfather’s blood coursing through me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

For Pesach: Listening at the Seder

Pesach is a time to tell the story to our children. It is a time to speak. But perhaps it is also a time to listen.

At the beginning of Magid, we are told a story about 5 rabbis who held a Seder together. What do we hear of their Seder proceedings? Only one teaching: Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah says that he was never able to prove to others that the exodus needed to be mentioned at night (in the nightly Shma) until Ben Zoma came and expounded it from a certain verse.

Discussing this passage with my high school students, they suggested that more than the content of the teaching, what is being taught here is the process. These rabbis, after all, are our model for a Seder. What does the conversation at their Seder look like?

The conversation involves not just saying your own ideas, but also listening and repeating what someone else has said, and really learning from them. Ben Zoma’s insight could easily have been quoted in his own name: Ben Zoma said . . . .. But no. Instead it is introduced by Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, who frames it through his appreciation of its value; “Behold I am like a man of 70 years” and I was never able to prove this point until Ben Zoma explained it. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah is humble enough to give full credit to Ben Zoma.

Interestingly enough, the sage who is quoted here, Ben Zoma, is the very same sage to have said, in Pirke Avot 4:1: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” Ha! Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah clearly learned both Ben Zoma’s teaching in the Haggadah and this Pirke Avot teaching – he learned from Ben Zoma how to learn from Ben Zoma.

There is more. Ben Zoma’s interpretation of the verse in the Haggadah is actually only one side of the coin. The Haggadah (also cited in Mishnah Brachot 1:5) goes on to quote the opinion of the Sages who disagreed with him. What is the content of the Sages’ opinion? That the phrase kol yemei hayekha, “all the days of your life,” which Ben Zoma understood to be teaching us to include night as well as day, according to the Sages comes to include the Messianic era in addition to the world of today.

The Messianic era? Also in Pirke Avot, we are told that a person who cites a teaching bshem omro, “in the name of the one who said it,” in other words, a person who cites his source by name, mevi geulah la’olam, “brings redemption to the world.” Citing a source by name? That is just what Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah did here in quoting Ben Zoma! Did he bring redemption into the world? His citation did bring the mention of the Messianic era into the Haggadah. It is as if there is a little hint here that acting like Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, being humble enough to learn from others and give them credit, this is what brings about redemption, the very type of redemption we once experienced in Egypt and hope to bring about and experience again.

How do we get there? How do we get to a place of redemption? By talking and telling the story, yes. But also by listening to others – by getting outside ourselves and our need to be the smart ones at the table, by being humble enough to hear the wisdom of others, take it in, celebrate it and cite it, as Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah did. May our listening bring redemption.

For Pesach: Rise Up in Praise

Our main purpose on this earth, says the Sefat Emet (and others), is to praise God, to be witness to His existence and deeply grateful for the gifts He has bestowed on us.

That is the tachlit, the destination point, of creation and that is the tachlit, the destination point, of leaving Egypt. In both cases, the goal is reached on the 7th day. On Shabbat we stop our own creative endeavors to testify that all creative activity is really God’s and we sing, as the Psalm of the Sabbath day says – tov lehodot Lashem ulezamer lishimkha elyon. “It is good to give thanks to God and to sing to His exalted name.” That is our job on Shabbat – the end-point of creation – and that was our job on the 7th day after leaving Egypt – we stood at the Sea and sang praises to the Lord, an experience that tradition considers one of our highest points of connection to God. We stood and sang out with all our hearts and rose above ourselves as we exalted God.

All of Pesach is moving inexorably toward this height of praise. The gemara says that the seder “begins with shame and ends with praise.” We are moving towards praise: We begin with stories and words, and we conclude with Hallel and song. Hallel is the end-point of our speech in Magid, and an extended Hallel and the songs of Nirtzah are the end-points of the whole seder. They lead naturally to the Song of Songs, which is read on the Shabbat of Pesach, and some read on the night of the Seder. And then we reach the pinnacle of praise – the moment at the Sea. For this purpose were we redeemed, for this moment of praise.

What does it mean to say that our life purpose is to praise God? Isn’t there so much else that needs fixing in this world? What sense does it make to focus on thanksgiving as the main goal?

The Mussar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe teaches that the virtue of hakarat hatov, gratitude, has great powers. Hakarat hatov literally means “to recognize the good.” To see the good in another – to appreciate the letter carrier for delivering your mail even though he is paid to do so, to see this act as itself a kind of small hesed— to see all those acts of goodness in the world, to notice them, is to bring warmth and friendship and love into the world. To see God’s hand of goodness in everything around you, to understand deeply that none of it, really none of it -- not the life nor the health nor the roof – none of it is deserved or obvious but all are acts of divine kindness, to understand all that is to be in a state of Dayenu, a recognition of the neverending shefa or overflow from above. Seeing the good is not passive, but active and transformative – it awakens the good and the love that is always just beneath the surface in our universe. As Rabbi Wolbe says, by noticing the good in the world, we actually “build” a world of hesed. We often think that the ultimate good is to do good; perhaps we should add to “doing good” the role of “seeing good.”

Praise transforms the world and it also transforms ourselves. On Pesach, we move from “shame” to “praise.” Shame is self-directed; it represents the normal way we exist in this world – referring everything to ourselves through the prism of the ego – did I sound ok? Did I look good? That was so embarrassing! These are the self-directed thoughts of our ego prison. On Pesach, we are delivered from many straits, including the confines of the self. Instead of shame, we emerge into the wide world of “praise,” a place where we move out of ourselves by acknowledging the existence of a Being so much larger than ourselves. We come out of the dark narrow cave and into the open light; we are no longer a little tiny ego on its own, but, in praising God, become part of the praise of the Universe, part of the waves of Halleluyahs and Hodu Lashem ki tov’s that go on without end. We raise God up, and in doing so, raise up ourselves, draw ourselves out of the self and into the vast expanse of Sea. We are free, not floating alone and free, but deeply connected and free precisely because of our connection. To this end were we made.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Post-Purim Shabbat: Walking, Not Running

In honor of the Shabbat after Purim:

Rest. Balance. Peace, inner and outer. These are among our tools for fighting powers of evil like Amalek.

The Sefat Emet points out the strangeness of the date of our celebration of Purim – we celebrate and say “for the miracles that happened at this time” on the day the people rested after their fight, not on the day of the victory itself. “With this rest [menuchah],” says the Sefat Emet, “they destroyed him [Amalek] more than with war.” Our rest is a way of fighting Amalek! We kill evil, not just through physical fighting (and I don’t deny the need also for the fight), but also through our special role in this world as carriers of God’s menuchah.

Indeed, in the megillah, the world of Haman and Achashverosh is always rushing. They have professional “runners,” ratzim, who are sent out, dechufim and mevuhalim, “harried and rushed,” with messages. And they “rush” to bring Esther her beauty needs. And later, Haman is rushed to the banquet with Esther.

Everyone is running around all the time. But not Mordecai. One gets a sense from him of steadfastness and balance. He is a calm, centered, devoted person who knows what he is about; he is said to be mithalekh, walking by the palace day in and day out to find out how Esther is faring. Notice the contrast – he walks; the rest of the world runs. Maybe that is why he finds out about the plot of Bigtan and Teresh; he is around in a calm enough state to overhear them.

Nor does Esther rush. She takes 3 days to prepare for her meeting with Achashverosh, and then meets with him twice before asking her question, striking at the right moment, not rushing into anything.

Such balance and patience are the mark of a person with faith, a person who knows, as Mordecai knows [the only person in the megillah of whom “knowing” (yada) is said, Esther 4:1] that salvation will surely come, whether through Esther or through another. Such a person has no reason to rush because he understands that he is not in charge and he trusts the One who is. He plays his part calmly and with dignity; he is on the alert to act and do his part, but he is never rushed or nervous or harried. Day in and day out he is devoted and balanced and available.
This is the rest – the peace of Shabbat – that is one of the Jewish people’s primary weapons in the war against Amalek. We walk through life in a strong steady pose of faith, trusting that the Good One is in charge, alert to play our role in His plan.

Or course, we are sometimes (often?) harried and rushed and impatient. And sometimes, as when we leave Egypt on Pesach, it is appropriate to rush, or at least to be ready, on the spur of the moment, to drop everything and follow God. But most of the time, this harriedness is a kind of imbalance, an unsteadiness and an impatience which shows – like the people in this week’s parsha, who rush to the building of a Golden Calf when Moshe is just a little bit later than expected – most of the time our rushing shows a lack of faith that all will be well, a lack of understanding about our role in the world. The world will continue to turn without us; ultimately, we do not need to rush around to make sure all will be well. We need simply to walk, like Mordecai, with faith and patience, ever-ready to seize the opportunities that emerge to those who carry themselves with balance and steadiness and menuchah.

We are not the runners of Achashverosh -- running back and forth and back and forth to little effect; we are the peaceful walkers of God.