Monday, September 18, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Thoughts: A Collection

This year I have taken some old and new ideas about Rosh Hashanah and compiled them into a short booklet that can be printed for the holiday.

Here is the link to this collection:

Feedback is always welcome, on both form and content.

Ketivah vehatimah tovah. A good new year to all.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and Parashat Ki Tetze

Underneath all the stuff, there is love.

In Houston, large swaths of the population have lost almost all of their worldly goods. It is hard to even imagine such a scenario – no clothes, no toiletries, no home, no bed, no computer, no lifetime of accumulated and beloved possessions.

Alongside images of these intense losses, we have watched acts of hesed, acts of love and kindness and bravery, often done by volunteers helping and rescuing total strangers. In our consumerist society, it feels as if the loss of all that stuff has somehow unearthed a renewed sense of connection and kinship.

Last Shabbat, in my Pirke Avot group we studied a line that my father used to repeat often – marbeh nekhasim, marbeh de’agah, the more possessions, the more worry. The more possessions, the more mental energy one needs to expend to protect them.

The Jewish tradition is not anti-material goods, but there is a sense that they sometimes interfere with seeing what really matters. One can easily become obsessed and anxious about material things to the point where the brain is no longer free.

In my Sefat Emet group this week, we read a beautiful piece about freedom. Spinning off on a passage in the parsha about tzaraat and remembering what Miriam suffered when we left Egypt, the Sefat Emet asserts that this notion of “remembering Egypt” means “remembering freedom” and that mitzvot in general are intended as good advice for how to be and remain free.

The examples he gives are material – we leave a corner of the field for the poor and give ma’aser and tzedaka all in order to learn not to become too attached to our wealth. This freedom must pervade everything we own, says the Sefat Emet, and so we put a mezuzah on the doors to our homes and tzitzit on our clothing, all to remind ourselves not to become too attached to these material things, and to instill a sense of freedom from the material.

The devastation in Houston is monumental and we cry with our fellows at their deep losses. Someone in my class said: you can either learn this freedom the hard way or the easy way. Let’s hope we are spared further lessons the hard way and remember in the rebuilding that, olam hesed yibaneh, the world is built on acts of loving kindness.

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.