Friday, August 11, 2017

Parashat Ekev: Not Because We Deserve It

“If you are breathing, that is nature’s way of saying that you belong here. You are enough.” I saw this on a teacher website, something that a teacher said to his students every day as part of a breathing meditation.

I would adjust that to: If you are breathing, that is God’s way of saying that He loves you at this moment, just the way you are and He wants you to be alive and here.

The essential point is that you don’t have to deserve this love or this life. You are given your daily breath (and bread) as free gifts simply out of love.

Moshe emphasizes this point in this week’s parsha. He spends a long time talking about the people’s sins, not to make them feel guilty, but to make a different point --- God is giving you the gift of the land of Israel not because you deserve it, but because He loved your ancestors and He loves you. Again and again, Moshe says: lo betzidkatekha – not because of your merit or virtue or righteousness. On the contrary, he goes to lengths to show how from beginning to end, the people angered and rebelled against God. Why does he go to such lengths? To make the clarity of God’s love even stronger --- this is a love that is not based on merit. You don’t have to deserve this love and therefore you cannot lose it. You have already done all the terrible things you can do and He nonetheless stuck with you and is giving you the gift of the land.

Last week, the parsha started with a word that makes a similar point. The word used to describe Moshe’s prayer is va’ethanan. Rashi says this means that Moshe prayed for a matanat hinam, a free gift. Even though Moshe did have merits to rely on, he understood that when you appear before God, you ask for a free gift. That is God’s way.

It should be our way, too, both in relation to ourselves and others. We live in a society that values productivity above all else. The question in our minds is always – how productive have we been? What have we accomplished, gotten done, today. This is a fine question as long as it is not tied in any way to our sense of self-worth. We do not need to prove that we deserve to exist based on our productivity. We deserve to exist simply because God loves us. Life is a matanat hinam, a free gift.

And sometimes, if we feel that we have erred and done the wrong thing, even then we should know that there is still love out there for us, that in any case, the gifts that God bestows upon us daily, like the gift of the land, are lo betzidkatekha, not given for our righteousness. We are human and often not so righteous and God gives us these gifts anyway, simply out of love.

This attitude does not deter teshuva, return and repentance, but on the contrary, I suspect it is the first step to change. Self-doubt and a feeling of low self-esteem lead to inaction and depression. Change happens best in the protective climate of love.

We do not need to deserve this life. It is a free gift. We should recognize the steadfast divine love behind our every breath.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Parashat Vaethanan: God's Oneness and our Wholeness

Often in life, one feels some slight dissonance or discomfort, as if you are a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. There is your true self and then there is what you have to do to get through the day and they don’t always match up exactly. The world has expectations, institutions have ways of doing things and you are an individual making your way.

There is one place where a person never feels this discomfort – before God. In relation to God, we are always whole and always wholly ourselves. I think this is part of what we mean when we say in the Shma (in this week’s parsha) that one loves God with all of one’s heart and soul – before God, there is a capacity to be whole and whole-hearted in a way one cannot be anywhere else.
This feeling of wholeness is connected to the word ehad, one, which we say about God in the Shma. God is one and we are one with God somehow – or rather, we feel the oneness of the world and ourselves and a sense of completeness with God that we cannot feel elsewhere. There is a yearning quality to this feeling, as if we are longing for an earlier time or a later time when we indeed were/will be one with God, and, strangely, this sense of yearning makes us feel whole, complete, one.

Thinking this over clarified for me what idolatry is. Idolatry is the opposite of God because of its multiplicity. To worship multiple gods makes us feel divided – that sense of dissonance again. We are not sure whom to serve , whether the demands of work are the true god or our families or accomplishments. We feel divided by the demands of many gods because there is indeed still a tinge of idolatry in this world at all times. And it is precisely in the face of this dividedness, this sense of being pulled in a thousand directions, that we need to assert every day, not once but multiple times – Shma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad. Listen up – there is only one God. Go about your life, fulfill expectations, do your work, take care of your family, but somehow remember that it is all in service of God, not in service of other humans and their ideas of what you should do and not in service of your own ego with all its ambitious goals. Just God. Even as you go about your day, keep a piece of yourself pure and whole-hearted, connected to God and that sense of oneness.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Parashat Pinchas: The Unstuck Children of Sinners

Our lives, our choices are not completely determined by our parents’ paths and by our past. We each shape our own destinies. At every moment we have complete freedom to act in a fresh new way.

In this week’s parsha we find a few examples of this freedom. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah and Tirzah are the daughters of Tzolfehad, a man who “died for his own sin” (according to the rabbis, either for breaking the Sabbath or for trying to enter the land after the sin of the spies). The children of this “sinner” merit the highest mark of approval – God Himself says about their claim ken, “yes,” “correct.” As Rashi comments, “fortunate is one whose words the Holy One blessed be He agrees to.” These daughters were not tied to their father’s path of sin, but forged their own bright future.

As if to hammer in this point, the parsha includes mention of another set of children of a sinner as well, beney Korah, the children of Korah. In the list of descendants, the Torah takes the time to record that although Korah and his followers all were killed for their rebellion, “the children of Korah did not die.” Rashi explains that at the last moment, they had thoughts of teshuva, a change of heart, and therefore were not swallowed up with the rest of the sinners.

There they were, surrounded by rebels, all speaking the same angry rhetoric against Moshe. What strength of character it must have taken to even think a different thought, to imagine that those around them were wrong! To change one’s mind in such circumstances, to do teshuva, is the ultimate act of personal freedom, the assertion that our destinies are not predetermined by our surroundings or our history. We are at every moment free to change, to be a new type of person.

We often feel stuck in our old ways, our regular habits of thinking, our usual way of doing things. As we enter the three weeks of mourning and look forward to the coming of Elul and the High Holidays, we can begin the process of change by really taking in the full truth of its possibility. To really believe in teshuva, to really believe in change and the freedom to be different, is a powerful assertion of personal autonomy. We can be different. Our past does not determine who we can become. Each morning, each moment, we are born anew, fresh and free to choose our path. May we choose one to which the Holy One says ken.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Guest Blogger Medad Lytton on Parashat Chukat


In this week’s parsha, Moshe sends messengers to the king of Edom to request passage for Bnai Yisrael through the land of Edom. In his request, he states that Bnai Yisrael will not turn right or left until they cross Edom’s border. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that although Moshe’s intention was to say “until we come to the land,” he was afraid that the king of Edom would be reminded that Yaakov took the Bechor and Bracha from Esav which now enables Bnai Yisrael to inherit the land of Canaan. Even generations later, the tensions between Yaakov and Esav shine through the interactions between their descendants.

But this story is reminiscent of an interaction between Yaakov and Esav on an even deeper level. This incident eerily echoes an earlier portion of the Torah: parashat Vayishlach. Just as Yaakov sent messengers to his brother Esav as he reentered the land of Canaan, so too here, as Bnai Yisrael prepare to enter the land of Canaan, they send messengers to the nation of Edom, Esav’s descendants. Throughout these pesukim, the parallel to Yaakov’s messengers shines through. As in parashat Vayishlach, here in parashat Chukat the episode begins by stating in an almost formulaic phrase who sent messengers to whom.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו . . . כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֔ב

Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau . . . thus says your servant Jacob

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח מֹשֶׁ֧ה מַלְאָכִ֛ים מִקָּדֵ֖שׁ אֶל־מֶ֣לֶךְ אֱד֑וֹם כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ אָחִ֣יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel


` The similarity of these two passages goes beyond the phrasing; the content of the message is also similar. In both cases, Yaakov and Moshe recount their difficult experiences in Lavan’s house and Egypt respectively. Yaakov explains to Esav that he has been a stranger in the house of Lavan and Moshe recounts Bnai Yisrael’s parallel experience in Mitzrayim (these two experiences are almost explicitly compared in the Haggadah).

Not only is this an example of Maaseh Avot Siman Lebanim, “the actions of the forefathers is a sign for their descendants,” but there is a deeper significance to these parallels. The Torah through these parallels seeks to frame this interaction between Bnai Yisrael and Edom as the conflict between Yaakov and Esav, a conflict which is epitomized by the phrase Hakol kol Yaakov, Vehayadayim yeday Esav, “the voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav.” This verse can be interpreted as explaining the difference between Yaakov and Esav --Yaakov is a person who uses his voice while Esav uses his hands. Here in parashat Chukat we see these differences again. Moshe says (a bit strangely) to Edom --Vayishma Koleinu, "[Hashem] heard our voice." The King of Edom responds pen Bacherev eitzei licratecha, “lest with a sword I will come out to meet you.” Esav is still the person of the hand/sword and Yaakov a person of the voice.

The Torah is trying to teach us that Moshe’s message is not just a practical request for passage through the land. Moshe’s message is a way through which Bnai Yisrael can affirm their national identity. Before they can enter the land, Bnai Yisrael must define who they are as a nation. Historically, nationality has often been defined by contrast with an “other.” For instance Protestant Great Britain defined its national identity in the eighteenth century through a continual conflict with a Catholic France. Here Bnai Yisrael are defining themselves as a unique and chosen people of the voice as opposed to Edom, a people of the sword.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Parashat Bamidbar and Shavuot: Finding Your Place

In the vast, uncultivated desert, the Israelites had an orderly method of encampment and travel – three tribes on each of four sides, north, south, east and west, each group with its own representative flag, all surrounding the Tabernacle in the middle.

Sometimes we feel that we are floating in this world, that the world is large and chaotic and it is unclear what our place is. We feel lost in the desert.

This week’s parsha teaches that order and a sense of place in the universe come from our connection to God. If we place God in the center, if we are clear about this priority, then all else falls literally into place, ourselves included. We have a part to play in a larger scheme. We are no longer lost.

When we place God at the center, what happens is what happens in the beginning of Bamidbar – we count, we matter. Rashi says that it is a sign of God’s great love for us that He counts us all the time. We encircle Him, placing Him at the center, and He, in turn, gives us love and value – we matter in relation to God and once we know that, we feel secure in our place in the universe.

In less than a week we will be celebrating Shavuot, when we received the Torah. It strikes me that the encampment in the desert was a replication of the experience at Sinai. At Sinai, too, we surrounded God, at the foot of the mountain. It is as if the desert encampment was meant to continue that experience, to continue physically our sense of God at the center, first in an awesome revelation, and then in the daily travails of life.

The Sefat Emet says that at Sinai we each saw our own root in God and our own part in the Torah. We each understood that we have a part to play; we each felt the full weight of our own value; we counted.

The word for the census numbers is pekudim. This root also has the connotation of appointments or assignments. We were not just counted, but each given an assignment, each given a sense of our own worth in relation to God, a sense of our own part to play in the divine scheme, a sense of “place” so that the world no longer feels chaotic and random but ordered and purposeful.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Parashat Behar-Behukotai: On Harmful Speech and Awe of God

It is easy to hurt someone with words. We do it all the time, in subtle and unsubtle ways, pointing out how another person is lacking in comparison to us, showing up their ignorance or incompetence, commenting on the relationship between their suffering and their own responsibility for it, reminding them of some hurtful or shameful past. Sometimes the words just come out and we realize too late they could be hurtful in their implications. We didn’t really mean it, but we didn’t think it through properly. Other times there is some unconscious need to assert our own superiority, to say – you can’t do this right but I can – without actually saying those words.

One of the famous mitzvot in the first of this week’s parshiyyot is the prohibition against ona’at devarim – causing another person suffering through speech. This prohibition is linked to the shmita and yovel years and comes after an initial prohibition against ona’at mammon, exploiting someone’s weakness or ignorance monetarily by overcharging in a business transaction. The Talmud says that ona’at devarim is more severe than ona’at mamon; causing someone harm through words – though we do it more frequently – is actually worse than doing financial harm.

One proof of this greater severity is that the Torah adds with regard to ona’at devarim an extra phrase – veyareta me’elokekha. You should fear your Lord. Rashi on the pasuk explains that these types of actions may be unclear; the question is one of intention – did you intend harm through these words or not? Only God knows.

What we are getting at here is a deep link between our speech and our heart – between what we say to others and what we really believe about God’s place in the universe. Maybe it is not just that God is the judge of our intentions, but also that a sense of fear in God is actually the way we can control those intentions and ultimately the words that come out.

Yirat Elokim, a sense of fear or awe of God, may be the key to shaping both our hearts and our speech and moving them away from this place of ona’ah, harm to others. What drives us in the first place to say such things is our constant need to assert ourselves as superior to others. How do we get out of this mindset? By understanding our true place in the universe, by understanding God’s true place in the universe. A sense of awe involves cultivating an awareness of God’s Presence in every situation and every person that we meet. When we feel this deeply, then we feel that each person – ourselves as well as others – are all part of this vast universe of God, all playing our parts, all pieces of the divine. There is no superiority in this but a deep sense of belonging and kinship.

Shmita and Yovel – the seventh and fiftieth year rests for the land, and the return of the land to its original owner -- both teach the agricultural lesson of divine ownership of the land. They help us get out of the mindset of “mine” and “yours” and into the mindset of “God’s.” Similarly, the prohibitions against both ona’at mamon and ona’at devarim remind us to cultivate a sense of divine presence and awe in relation to every person we meet. This person and I are not “you” and “I” but both also “God’s,” not separate, but connected, not in competition, but both pieces of the divine. Feeling God’s awe in that moment of interaction means cultivating a sense of humility – I am always small in relation to God – a sense of humility that wards against any inclination to superiority. The question becomes not – how can I show that I am better than this person – but rather – how can I bring out the divine image in both of us? How can I treat this human encounter as a divine encounter?

In my Mussar group this week, we are working on yirah, awe or fear of God, and one woman pointed out that most of the other traits we have tackled – generosity, patience, compassion, . . – were interpersonal in nature whereas this one seems totally God-centered. She wondered whether there was some interpersonal side to awe as well. This week’s parsha answers that question by placing the phrase “You shall fear your God” right after the prohibition against harmful speech. How we think about God and the universe does affect how we interact with others and how we speak to others. Keeping God in mind is the answer to our natural inclination to superiority, the answer to our tendency to ona’at devarim. Awe is interpersonal.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Parashat Emor: On Declaring Holiness

Mikraei Kodesh – this is the term used in our parsha and throughout the Torah for holidays – days that are “called” holy, called holy by “you,” Israel. The power to proclaim holiness is given to human beings. We make the day holy by declaring it so and celebrating it with holiness (not working, kiddush, eating special meals, wearing special clothes, . . .) The day itself derives some holiness from God, surely, but it is our job to call out that holiness and bring it out into the daylight and the concrete world of action (and inaction). The rabbis go so far as to learn from this verse that God Himself cedes to the human court’s calendar decisions and declares in the heavenly courts only the dates decided down below by humans.

Mikraei Kodesh. It is our job to “call out” the holy in the world, to notice it and proclaim it. We are like the angels who “call” out to each other each morning: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” We also are “callers of holiness.”
What does it mean to be a “caller of holiness?” It means to notice with awe the divine sparks around us, to notice them in nature – in the simplest flower and the largest tree and the blow of the breeze through the leaves – and to notice them in each other, to really see that each person we encounter was created in the divine image, to uncover inside them that purity and sacredness of soul.

Shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid. I set God before me at all times. Abraham Joshua Heschel says that each human being is a shiviti, a reminder of God’s presence. We set God before us by seeing God in all that is around us, by calling out and drawing out the hidden holiness. We are “callers of holiness.”