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.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Purim: Fighting Hatred With Love

In the face of senseless evil, be kind to each other.

Haman, like the nation of Amalek from which he springs, represents pure, incomprehensible evil and hatred, a desire to totally annihilate us.

What do we do to commemorate our salvation from this evil? We send gifts to each other; we take care of the weak and the poor; we eat together and enjoy each other’s company. We fight hatred with love.

In the megillah, of course, we also stood up for ourselves and militarily fought back. This stance, too, has its place in Jewish tradition. But we don’t commemorate this redemption with military training. We commemorate it with gift-giving.

In the face of evil, we take care of each other. In the face of hatred, we are generous and kind and inclusive. This is the world we want to live in, not Haman’s.

In the end of the day, there is so much we can’t control, so many forces awry in this world; in the face of everything evil that we worry about, our response on Purim is simple acts of kindness.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” On Hanukah we drive out darkness with light. On Purim, we drive out hatred with love.

The Sefat Emet says that the reason we read Parashat Zachor (last week) on Shabbat is because Shabbat, with its own kind of Zachor, is a tikkun, a fixing, for the actions of Amalek. We fight Amalek, which represents perpetual war, with Shabbat, which represents eternal peace, Shalom. We fight war with peace. We fight hatred with love and kindness.

May we all have a joyous and kind Purim!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Parashat Tetzaveh and Purim: Carrying Each Other

We carry each other in our hearts, and there is no greater divine service than this.

This was the service of the kohen gadol. He wore a breastplate and two stones on his shoulders and in both places, on his heart and on his shoulders, the names of the children of Israel were inscribed. The Torah says specifically that he “carried” (nasa) the names of the children of Israel “on his heart as a reminder before God at all times” (28:29). He carried them – no, he carried us – in his heart, and as a burden on his shoulders, all the time. Where did he carry us? Lifnei Hashem. Before God. This was his divine service – to be mindful of the people, to help shoulder their burdens, to keep their troubles in his heart, to remember them and think of their needs.

There is no longer someone bringing our needs before God at all times, but we, each of us, serves as a kind of kohen gadol, for one another. When we pray in our daily Amidah and include the names of the sick, we are not just reminding God to pay attention, but reminding ourselves. We inscribe their names on our own hearts just as the Kohen Gadol had them inscribed on his breastplate. Their names, their burdens, are ours to carry.

On Purim, what we celebrate is not just our redemption, but our redemption by means of the caring and efforts of fellow Jews. Esther could easily have hidden away in the castle, as Mordecai implies, and ignored the problem, but she carried the burden of her people. This was not Egypt, where God would do the work. This redemption required the real effort of the people.

Our means of celebrating is also peculiarly inter-personal. On Sukkot the mitzvah is for you to sit in your own sukkah and shake your own lulav, and on Pesah, for you yourself to eat the matzah. But on Purim two of the mitzvot are about caring for each other’s needs – matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor and mishloach manot, gifts to one another. You have an obligation to feed one another. The give and take symbolizes the give and take of our care for each other, the way that our fates and hearts are intermingled. We are responsible for each other’s meals. We are responsible for each other’s well being.

Carrying food to one another, carrying each other’s names and burdens – these, too, are the service of God.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Parashat Yitro: Approaching the Cloud

One of the best moments of my week involved crying.

Crying with one of my children as the child cried, too, half lying in my arms. Before that moment, I had been walking around with a vague sense of hurry and worry. At that moment of crying, I was entirely at peace, sad, but entirely at peace. There was nowhere else to be and nothing better to do than this. Above all, I felt connected, connected to my child, connected to myself and that deep point of sadness inside me, connected to all the troubles and sadness in the universe, connected to the God who cares about all that sadness, who, as one of my students reminded me this week, is “the healer of broken hearts” (Ps. 147:3).

Sometimes it requires going into the sadness, not pushing it away, but actually approaching it, to feel this sense of connectedness. When Moshe approaches God on Sinai in our parsha this week, the Torah says that everyone else stood back, but Moshe approached the arafel asher sham Elokim, “the thick dark cloud where God was” (Ex 20:18). That is where God resides. In the arafel. In the clouds. In the moments of darkness and worry and confusion and sadness. Yes, of course, God also resides in joy, but here in our parsha, the pinnacle of revelation is depicted as a thick dark cloud. The moments that we run away from, like the people do here, those are the moments that perhaps offer the deepest of connections and revelations if we could only muster the fortitude, like Moshe, to approach them.

Ki shamah, ki shamah, ki shamah Elokim. The Israeli singer Shuli Rand sings a song about this passage entitled Arafel and his refrain is this – ki shamah, ki shamah, ki shamah Elokim. “Because there, because there, because there is God.” There, in that sadness, in our very brokenness, there, in the places we hide from, it is there that we will find God, feel our connection to Him, to each other and to ourselves. There, in the crying, in the thick cloud of darkness.

The Piasetczner Rebbe talks about moments like this as cracks in the soul. Normally we go about our lives with our soul covered over with a thick impermeable layer. Then there are moments, moments of intense emotion, whether sadness or joy, and at these moments cracks open in this covering. The goal is to use these cracks to fully access our soul and our connection to God, to fully enter those moments as opportunities for spiritual connection, moments when we, too, have the ability to approach the arafel.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Parashat Shmot: No Matter How Low You Sink

The rabbis say that the Israelites in Egypt had sunk to the lowest (49th) level of impurity when God redeemed them. Reading the parsha this year, I see what they mean.

When the Israelites cry out from suffering over their enslavement, their cries go up to God, but the Torah does not say that they were directed that way. They simply cried, but not to God, as if without a protector, as if they no longer feel they have that divine angel that, as Yaakov said at the end of his life, had always saved him from all evil.

When Moshe finds out that his killing of the Egyptian has been discovered, he is very frightened and runs away. He does not turn to God, beseeching Him to protect him as Yaakov did when he was frightened before he faces Esav. Moshe simply runs.

When Moshe names his first child Gershom, he explains, “I was a foreigner in a foreign land.” There is no God in this name. The naming is reminiscent of Yosef’s naming of his children. He, too, had been a stranger in a foreign land, but his names refer to God’s help – “for God has made me forget my troubles” and “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

It seems that the descendants of Yaakov, Yitzhak and Avraham have not continued their legacy. God is not on the tip of their tongues or in their hearts. They have indeed sunk low. And so it is that when Moshe does discover God, as if anew, through the burning bush, and is asked to bring back word of this God and His plan of redemption to the people, Moshe asks for a name – Who are you? I have no tradition of you nor do these people, apparently.

The people have forgotten God, lost sight of Him in their misery and lost the thread of their tradition of faithfulness to this God. Yes, the people have lost their connection, but not so God. God remains faithful. God remembers and appears and redeems.

The symbol of the burning bush is important in this regard. It is a bush that burns but is not consumed, like God Himself. He does not wear out; His love has not been used up by our ancestors; God’s symbol here is one of a never-ending supply of ardor and passion and connection. Most resources are finite and can be used up. Not so God’s love for us.

Sometimes, I think more often than we like to admit, we do not feel worthy of connecting to God. We are not necessarily on the lowest rung like the people of Israel, but we do sink pretty low. We forget God; we go about our business without paying attention to the divine glory around us; we don’t name the divine in our children; we don’t see their kedushah, their holiness. We are frightened and overwhelmed by difficulties and we cry out but not to God; we are simply hopeless.

If we add to this distance, this forgetting, a certainty that because of our forgetting we therefore no longer have access, no longer deserve to have God’s love, then we are doomed. We need to know that just because we have abandoned God, as did the grandchildren of Yaakov in Egypt, does not mean that God has abandoned us. Like the little light that would not go out on Chanukah, God’s love for us burns eternal without ever consuming its energy source.

Moshe was, in a way, the first real ba’al teshuvah. He knew he was “Jewish” on some level, but does not seem to have a tradition of what this means. He rediscovers the God of his ancestors and in this rediscovery, brings about redemption and the eventual revelation of the whole Torah.

Later, after the miracles of the exodus, when the people of Israel stand at the Sea and cry out to God, this time the Torah tells us that they cried out “to God.” The rabbis add: tafsu umanut avoteihem, “they caught up the art of their ancestors.” To return to such a call is to know that this connection can never be severed, to know that, like Moshe and his generation in Egypt, we will always have access, can always return to the ever-burning Source that is waiting for us to rediscover Him.

Friday, December 15, 2017

For Chanukah: On Just Doing Your Best

You do your best and God will do the rest. That is what my students told me was the message of a story we read last week about candle lighting.

The story goes like this: Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, a famous miracle worker, one Friday afternoon notices that his daughter is sad and asks her what is wrong. This itself is a beautiful moment, a moment of compassion and caring and seeing the suffering of another (perhaps explaining why this rabbi had access to miracles). The daughter explains that she mistook the bottle of vinegar for the bottle of oil and lit the Shabbos candles with vinegar. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa responds: What do you care? The One who told the oil burn will also tell the vinegar burn. And so it was. The vinegar burned through the night and the following day and they took light from it for havdalah.

My students explained that what Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is saying here is that if you have done your best to do the right thing and fulfill God’s command, you don’t have to worry. You can set your mind at ease. God will take care of the rest.

I once heard a similar explanation of the Chanukah miracle. On that first day, before the people knew that this little jug of oil would last all 8 days until more could be made, on that first day, what did they think? Surely they were sad at the prospect of the light only lasting a short time, but they did not let this thought deter them. They simply did their best . . . and indeed God took care of the rest.

The same could be said of the military miracle. What hope did those Maccabee fighters really have to win? They just did their best . . . and God took care of the rest.

What about us? What are we sad about? Sometimes life is overwhelming and we feel saddened and anxious at the prospect that we will not be able to succeed in our goals. Sometimes we look at a task and think it is too hard, too impossible, requires too many resources (time especially!), etc . . . And this makes us sad in a deep existential way. The task is beyond us.

Indeed it probably is beyond us. But all we are expected to do is do our best, to make the choices that seem right in our very human minds at the moment, commit ourselves to be of service, and not worry about anything else. The results are not our business. God will decide. We are only tasked to play our part.

I don’t advise switching oil for vinegar this Chanukah, but it is good to keep in mind that such mistakes are human, and if we do them with a full heart of good intention, we need not be sad. All we can do is try our best to do what is right. The rest is up to the One who told the oil to burn.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Parashat Vayishlach: Shifting towards Peace

One kind act can shift the course of history.

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov hears that Esav is approaching with 400 men. Was Esav planning an aggressive attack? The Torah doesn’t tell us but Yaakov certainly thinks so.

The possible destruction of the future Jewish people is headed off by what? By Yaakov’s overflowing generous gifts to Esav.
(Of course there was also the prayer, which surely had an effect, both on Yaakov’s mindset and on the reality, and there was also his simultaneous preparation for war – security comes to those who are prepared. But those topics are for another drasha).

Yaakov shifts the course of history how? By a few she-goats. He takes the initiative here to change the dynamic of his relationship with his brother. Previously Yaakov had created a competitive grabby environment -- a sense of scarcity -- squabbling over birthright and blessing so that his brother was left with nothing left to “take” but Yaakov’s life. But now Yaakov takes a new approach. Instead of grabbiness, he is generous and giving, sending forth gift after gift.

And the result? The result is in kind. When you are grabby, others are grabby back. When you are generous, others are generous back. Esav is surprisingly magnanimous: “I have enough, my brother,” he says (note the term of affection or at least connection!), “let what you have remain yours.” If you have removed yourself from the race, I, too, remove myself and become your brother once again, with no aim of violence.

Sometimes that is all it takes – one kind act. One kind act that sets off a wave of other kind acts. We have all experienced this. Someone lets you in on the road and you are inspired to do the same for others. Someone greets you with a smile and it changes how you treat others for the rest of the day.

Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to (or literally, “drags” with it) another mitzvah. Normally we think this phrase refers to one person – I do one mitzvah and in doing so, that mitzvah leads me to do the next one. This too is true – I have set myself up on a good path. But here, in this week’s parsha, we can also see that this expression works externally, describing how mitzvot can grow from one person to another. Yaakov’s kind deed leads to Esav’s kind deed. We influence each other.

Yaakov knows from experience that you get back whatever you give out to this world. Not always from the same person, but it comes back to you eventually. He tricked his father concerning the younger and the older child and so he, too, was tricked by Lavan concerning the younger and the older child – tricked into marrying the wrong sister. So Yaakov understands – be careful how you act; it will come back at you.

In sending out gifts to Esav, he “reimagines” and restarts his relationship with his brother on new footing. What he is sending out into the world is no longer competition and tricks but generosity and gifts, freely given gifts with no expectation of a return. What he gets in return is also a gift – peace and forgiveness and the biggest freely given gift of all, life itself.

We often feel stuck in a certain mood or dynamic. Sometimes all it takes is the energy – considerable energy – to do something different, to do one small kind act. This one act has power beyond itself, sending ripples of kindness through the world, shifting things so that all those destructive forces of the “400 men” coming at us in this world turn loving and generous themselves. Maybe one kind act can save us all.