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.”

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Uncovering the Gold Inside

A midrash, cited by Rashi, explains why tzara’at of the house is described as a kind of “gift” to the Israelites --- A person whose house is afflicted with tzara’at is required to break down the walls of her house; in doing so, she would unearth the gold and treasure hidden there by the previous Canaanite owners.

This is a metaphor for the struggle to live a holy life. We cover over who we really are inside. According to the rabbis, a person can get tzaraat for any of a number of sins --- arrogance, murder, sexual impropriety, theft, envy and most especially, gossip.

What does it mean to sin? How is a person, created in the divine image with a divine spark inside, capable of sinning? How? Only by forgetting who we are – by covering over that divine spark with walls, walls that become grimier and grimier the farther we get from that knowledge of who we really are. Sinning is a kind of forgetfulness, a covering over of our true selves.
And so what is the resolution? Break down the walls and see the gold inside – Remember who you are inside! Elokay neshama shenatata bi tehora hi – My God, the soul that you placed inside of me, it is pure! Yes, it is pure! Remember your goodness, remember your purity! All those actions you have been doing have been covering over that goodness with grime. Get rid of the grime and remember your basic goodness.

If we truly carried around with us this knowledge of our own goodness, if we thought of ourselves as pure, as treasures, as pieces of the divine, we would act differently in the world. Tempted to speak gossip, we would stop – we all know how speaking ill of another makes you feel dirty. It is not just a problem for the other you have spoken about – you have sullied yourself, betrayed your own true goodness.

Sometimes the forgetfulness is quite deep. Because of our actions -- because we do not act with dignity and care in the world-- we do not feel like “children of the king”; we feel like we are pathetic, struggling, unclean, a mess. That is why the Torah says – break down the dirty walls and get rid of them. Look deep inside. Remember that you are pure gold. You carry the divine inside you. Build a new house that reflects that knowledge.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

For Pesach: On Transformation

Transformation. At the heart of the Seder is the notion of change and transformation. From slavery to freedom. From idol worship to divine worship. From shame to praise. The Seder is a journey of transformation.

This transformation is not just a historical one that we recall and retell – our ancestors left Egypt. Rather, “in every generation, a person is obligated to see herself as if she went out of Egypt,” says the Haggadah. Each of us is meant to experience the leaving of Egypt each year, to experience our own transformation, our own journey out of the straits of our mental prisons into the openness and freedom of divine worship.

When we ask Mah Nishtanah halaylah hazeh?, what is different, or literally, “changed,” on this night, we look around and point at the external changes, the starkly different foods and ways of sitting and eating. But the changes should not just be external. These physical changes are a symbol of some other change that is meant to happen inside us. What is changed on this night? Most importantly – we are.

Now change is difficult and normally takes a long time. Around the High Holidays, we also try to change, to do teshuva, to “return” to God and the proper way of life, but at that time we spend a month and a half working on it. So what is this Seder night change – how can one be transformed in the course of one night?

This change is of a different sort; it is not the slow process change, but the sudden realization or awakening, the “Eureka” moment when we glimpse clearly the truth; it is not so much a gradual return home as it is a rebirth – one moment in the womb, the next, in the world; one moment in the dark, the next, bathing in the divine light of revelation.

Like the matzah dough, which becomes hametz if left too long before cooking, these changes are time-sensitive. We have to take a stance of alacrity, a readiness to leap at opportunity.

This leap-like transformation is spontaneous; it does not involve a well thought out process and an attempt to control oneself as on Yom Kippur, but on the contrary, it asks us to relinquish control, to let go of the sense that we control our own destiny and let God in.

God is the center actor throughout the Haggadah. Moshe’s name is famously absent, as is mention of any other form of human leadership. We do not say: “We left Egypt.” We say: “We were slaves and God took us out of Egypt.” We were idol worshippers and God brought us close to Him. God Himself makes these transformations. “Not through an angel. Not through a fiery angel. Not through a messenger.” “It was I,” God Himself, “I and no other.”

I once went to observe an AA meeting. A man got up and talked about the sudden realization that came to him one day, lying in a hospital bed totally bottomed out; what came to him at that moment was the realization that he was not capable of changing on his own, but that if he let go of that sense of control, God would help him change.

That is the realization we are to come to on the Seder night. Yes, at other points in the year, we do emphasize personal responsibility and taking control of our actions. Here, though, salvation-- sudden salvation and transformation -- comes not through our own might and our own human effort, but precisely through our ability to let go, to admit that we are not in control. Only at that moment of letting go do we let God in, are we truly open to an experience of giluy shechinah, of the transformative revelation of the divine Presence.

Sometimes I think we try too hard to change, that in the very effort we hold the reins so tight that we obstruct God from entering and helping us. The transformation on Pesach night is not so much something we do, but something we let happen; yes, we prepare, so that we are open and ready for it, like the Israelites with their belts girded, but in the end, at the time of the Seder, we have to let God do the transforming.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

For Pesach: On Questions and Awakening

We normally go through life not noticing. We are in a state of habit and automatic pilot, half asleep to the world around us.

Pesach is a holiday of awakening. Like the natural world coming to life in the spring – the trees budding, the birds singing and the animals emerging out of hibernation -- we, too, come to life out of our deep slumber of everyday living.

This is why questions play such an important role in the Seder. As the mussar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe points out (Allei Shor II, p. 394), questions are a way of awakening one’s soul, hitorerut nafshit, a way of stopping in one’s normal tracks and saying – wait, what is this exactly? What is going on?

And so we begin the Seder with the Mah Nishtanah, the prescribed 4 questions, and throughout the night we do things “in order that the children should ask.” Perhaps this does not just mean literally “children,” but also that naturally curious, inquisitive, and extremely present “child-like” side of ourselves. On this night, we are to be like children, seeing the world with their fresh wonder-filled eyes. Indeed, there is no answer to many of the strange things we do on this night other than “in order that the children should ask.” The whole purpose of the Seder is to help us enter this state of awakened questioning and noticing.

The gemara says that if one does not a have a child or a wife who can ask questions, then one should ask the questions oneself; even if two scholars are holding a seder together, they should still ask questions (Pesahim 116a). The point is not the answers. These two scholars have plenty of answers all year. The point is to get back to a place of questions, back to a place of wonderment and awe and curiosity; the world looks shiny and bright, and yes, very different, suddenly, in the light of this questioning stance.

Questions are the entry point to revelation. The Haggadah tells us that on this night the Israelites experienced a gilui shekhinah, “a divine revelation.” How do we re-enact that each year? By awakening ourselves through a stance of questioning, by kindling that place inside us that views the world with intense wonder and curiosity – how did that flower come to exist? What is bread really? What is bitterness? How did we get here? What is Egypt? Are we free? Suddenly the whole world is bathed in light and wonder; we sense God in every creation, in every action, big or small. Questions are an invitation to connection, an opening to the possibility of a response.

This awakened stance may also explain why we recite Hallel in this strange way, at night, which is unheard of normally, and without an official initial brachah announcing the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Hallel. As Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz explains, we are not here to fulfill a prescribed obligation to praise God; we are instead moved, spontaneously -- in the heat of this moment of intense awakening and revelation – to sing out loud “Halleluyah!” We sing because it is natural to sing in such a state of awakening; our experience of God’s graciousness and of our own good fortune and gratitude overwhelms us and comes pouring out of our mouths in song.

Pesach is not a holiday to be smart. It is a holiday to be alive and real and awake. As much preparation as there is until it arrives, in exactly the same measure should we be present and spontaneous when it comes, awake to revelation and wonder like the wide-eyed children around us. And perhaps, with this experience of one night of awakening, we will learn to be a little more awake every day.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In Memory of Salo Steper, z"l: Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei and Dedication

A dwelling place for God is created by sustained dedication and devotion.

Why does the Torah repeat the details of the building of the mishkan (Tabernacle) in our two parshiyyot after describing them in more or less the same way in Terumah and Tetzaveh?

Why? Because Terumah and Tetzaveh describe the instructions from God for the building of the mishkan whereas Vayakhel and Pekudei, our parshiyyot, describe the follow-through by the people of Israel, the actual carrying out of the project. Creating a space where God can dwell does not only involve careful plans, but also disciplined and devoted diligence in working through till the completion of the project.

The Torah gives us a window into the kind of energy that it takes to build such a dwelling place. It begins with enthusiasm – the people come toppling over each over (“men on top of women,” 35:22), bringing all the necessary materials “and more,” until Moshe has to go out and make an announcement to stop!

It begins with enthusiasm and it is carried through on details, as the Torah relates the crafting of each piece of equipment according to its precise specifications. This, too, is religious work, part of the dedication that, as with any relationship, creates a firm base for God to dwell with us.

Indeed all throughout, the work is done with God in mind. In Parashat Pekuei, the phrase ka’asher tziva Hashem et Moshe, “as God had commanded Moshe” is repeated numerous times. Each and every item was crafted with the intention of fulfilling God’s command, as an act of devotion.

It is not the walls or the materials or the divine plans that bring God into the Tabernacle, but this combination of enthusiasm, diligence and dedication to the relationship that create a space in which God’s presence is drawn down to earth.

Our shul in Albany, CBAJ, was such a space, and it was in large measure due to the dedication of certain individuals. One such individual, Salo Steper, z”l, passed away this week. He was like Betzalel, a builder of a dwelling place for God. He was dedicated in all those everyday detailed ways that make a shul holy – he was there from before sunrise teaching Daf Yomi, at all the minyanim through till Maariv at night and with some Torah videos afterwards, and on Shabbos, teaching Psalms before Shaharit and enthusiastically encouraging any other learning going on in the shul and always ready to share some Torah. He wasn’t flashy about his commitments; he was a quiet, behind the scenes staple that held the walls up for the rest of us, always with a sense of total dedication to God, ka’asher tziva Hashem et Moshe. There was a simple purity to his focus and devotion—it was all for God.

Surely now he is in the Tabernacle up high, enjoying the fruits of his labors by basking in the divine Presence which he helped to bring to earth each day he was on earth. The phrase ka’asher tziva Hashem et Moshe appears 18 times in Parashat Pekudei. Such is the reward for keeping the commandments with zeal and dedication in all their details – chai, eternal life. May his memory be a blessing for us all and in his merit, may we continue to feel God’s presence among us.