Friday, May 31, 2019

Parashat Bekhukotai: Walking with God, Not Hiding

Vehithalakhti betokhakhem. “And I, God, will walk amongst you (Lev. 26:12).” This is one of the blessings described in our parsha of a life of following God and His mitzvot. That God will walk amongst us.

Rashi says this means that God will wander about among you in the Garden of Eden. I think the reason Rashi points to the Garden of Eden here is that the verb vehithalakhti, the reflexive form of halakh, “walk,” is used in reference to God in one other place – in Breishit, in reference to God’s voice wandering the Garden just after the first humans eat the forbidden fruit. What happens there? The people hear God walking and hide from Him among the trees; He calls out: Ayeka? Where are you? And they respond that they are fearful and hiding because they are naked.

This is the normal state of humanity – one of hiding and shame. We act in ways that we judge wrong (and often are wrong), but that is not really what removes us from God’s presence. What removes us from God’s presence, and in many ways, from our own presence, is the secondary aftereffect of our own judgment of ourselves – the hiding and the shame, our own assessment of our shameful “nakedness,” our own sense of unworthiness before God and humanity, and the hiding from truth and God that immediately ensues.

The blessing promised here for walking in God’s ways, for walking with a sense of His presence at all times, is in a way its own reward. What is the reward for walking in God’s ways? It brings a return to a pre-sin state, a return to the moment in the Garden of Eden when we could sense palpably God’s Presence walking about amongst us. But this time, instead of hiding and feeling shame, if we are really walking with God, then we learn not to hide, even if we are at times unworthy, not to hide, but to trust in the relationship, to trust that we are still worthy of God’s presence.

Tara Brach, a meditation teacher, likens our human situation of self-judgment to two arrows. There is the initial arrow of hurt, pain, anger, wrongful action, whatever, and then there is the second arrow, which digs us in so much deeper, the second arrow of self-condemnation and shame. When this second arrow hits, we are no longer walking with God; we no longer feel worthy of God’s presence. We hide from God and from ourselves and punish ourselves for our sins by distancing ourselves from God.

But God is still walking about the Garden looking for us. The key is to be steadfast with ourselves and with our relationship with God, not to quit on ourselves and hide and decide it is over and we are unworthy. That would be to walk with God bekeri, with a certain happenstance quality, sometimes on and sometimes off, depending on whether we feel worthy. No, we need to know that at all times God walks with us. To know this is in and of itself to return to the Garden of Eden, to return to the sense of peace and trust of that relationship. It was not the sin that destroyed it – God still wants us after we sin, is still walking the garden; He knows we are imperfect – it was the hiding, the distancing of our own selves from Him. It is the shaming that turns us away from Presence, convinces us that we do not deserve God and therefore do not seek or sense Him.

To walk with God, not bekeri, not with a sense of randomness or unsureness, but with a sense of sure-footed steadfastness, is to trust that God is walking with us, too, at all times, no matter what; it means never to give up on ourselves or shut down and hide, but to have the courage to face Presence at all times.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

For Bedikat Chametz

The Sefat Emet explains that when we say that matzah is lehem oni, poor person’s bread, what we mean is that matzah is the very core of bread, the bare bones dough; spiritually, it represents the essence of our inner selves, our most basic inner divine point.

On Pesach we peel away all the extra layers and remind ourselves that this simple core of ours is enough. All year we work to develop this core, to spread it and make it do fantastic feats. This is good, but we need to know that these extra developments are not essential to who we are, that our worth does not depend on this striving in the world, on how puffy our bread is, how productive or successful we are. No, that is all extra.

On Pesach, we remember that our core is enough, that even if we strip away all this work and striving and success, the essence, what matters, is still there; it is still bread, very very simple bread, but still bread; we are still complete without the puff.

This year when I look for chametz, I will be looking for the places inside me that don’t know this truth, for the places that work feverishly because they think they have to prove my worth, that without them I would be nothing. I will be looking for those parts of me that say, like chametz – I only matter if I rise; I am only complete if I spend time and effort and work at being something great.

I will be searching for these places and then I will burn them. They are not the truth. I will watch as the ashes swallow up all that striving and underneath all that striving, that feeling of not-enoughness.

I will watch the flames burn up the chametz and then I will turn to the matzah and know that, like matzah, my essence is enough. It is great to be risen bread, but it is not essential. I am enough, worthwhile, whole, with a pure divine spark, just as I am, in my most stripped down basic form. To know this is peace and to know this is freedom.

Monday, April 15, 2019

For Pesach: On Human Effort and Dependence

We work so hard for this holiday.

And yet, on some level, the message of Pesach is that we are taken care of. God took us out not because we deserved it; we didn’t. He redeemed us simply because we are His and He loves us. It is a leil shimurim, a night of protection, this seder night, not a time when we have to do anything to protect ourselves. God is in charge. In the Haggadah, we emphasize that it was God alone who redeemed us; we don’t mention Moshe’s name, because the emphasis on God is key; on this night, we need to know that we are dependent on God alone. We recline at the table like someone who is totally relaxed, secure in the knowledge that Someone else will take care of things, that we have “Someone to lean on.” We do not pour ourselves wine, but the custom is to be the recipient, to feel for one night that we have no worries over the replenishing of our cup; it will happen without our effort.

So why on this holiday, when we are meant to feel that we are totally cared for and protected from above, why is this the holiday that actually requires the most effort on our part to prepare for?

There is some deep psychological truth here, some connection between all this work and the feeling of total dependence that we aspire to.

There is the dependence of the child, an unexamined dependence which (hopefully) passes with time as the child becomes more independent. And then there is a deeper sense of dependence which we can only come to after some experience of independence and some experience of great human effort on our part.

It reminds me of the first two steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – first, we admitted that we were powerless, and second, we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We have to first bottom out with human effort; we have to first work really hard and try as hard as we can to do everything, to get it all right, to get our lives in order. We have to go that route and only after we have gotten to the point of knowing that even with all that effort, still, on some level, we are powerless to control our lives and make them work the way we want, only after we have come to that realization, that knowledge that “we can’t” – only then will we be really open to the One who Can, to the truth of our dependence on Him, to the appreciation of our gifts and the peace of not being in charge.

So both the effort and the feeling of being taken care of are part of the package on Pesach. Perhaps this is the meaning of our movement from slavery to freedom; we begin as slaves to our own human striving and work capacity and we move toward a feeling of the freedom and peace of knowing that ultimately, whatever work we do, however important it is, we are held in a larger cushion of divine love. Such knowledge of our dependence is a kind of freedom; it frees us from our enslavement to our very human projects and gives us a taste of something larger, more eternal.

For Pesach: Nothing After the Afikoman

Our answer to the wise child of the Haggadah is: ayn maftirin ahar haPesach afikoman. “One adds no after-dinner revelry after eating the Passover sacrifice.” Normally, after the meal, we might have another mini dessert party. But not tonight. The mitzvah is to end with the Passover lamb. [In our seders today, of course, since we no longer have a sacrifice, we end with the taste of matzah, which, ironically we call the “afikoman,” the word for the after-dinner revelry we are not to have.]

One should end with Pesach, either with the actual sacrifice or with some experience, like the matzah, that is specifically related to our Pesach experience of redemption. After that, nothing more should be added.

This idea reminds me of Nadav and Avihu, of the notion that the moment of divine revelation inside the Tabernacle, that moment that God’s Glory first came to fill up that space, that moment was the peak. It was enough and complete. For Nadav and Avihu to add to it, to try to top that moment, was an act of sacrilege; they meant to add, but they were actually taking away from the moment. (See my earlier Shmini blog).

Here, too, on Pesach, we are meant to have such an experience of divine Presence, indeed, to feel that God has redeemed us in particular right now and taken us out of Egypt. We need to be totally present for that experience, not to try to add to it afterwards, to think we need more, but simply to be present. Nothing extra. This moment is total and complete as it is. It is enough.

I think it’s interesting that this message is deemed especially appropriate for the wise and knowledgeable among us, for the overachievers, the strivers who are always looking to learn more and add one more insight and one more text and one more halakhic regulation, to add “dessert” to our Pesach. While the Haggadah encourages us to add to the telling of the story and to elaborate, there is also a place for minimums, for knowing what the core is – pesach, matzah and maror; feeling that you have left Egypt; singing praise to God – and sticking to the core.

Pesach can be a time of overdoing it, overdoing the cleaning, overdoing the shopping and the cooking and even overdoing the seder. There is a restlessness in all our striving that could lead us, like the wise son, to miss the main point, to be so worried about the dessert that we forget the main meal. The Haggadah warns us, at the start, ayn maftirin ahar HaPesach afikoman. Don’t be extra. Get to the Pesach itself, have an experience of God’s redemption, and be totally present for that. Know that that is enough. Indeed, know that that is everything. To do more detracts, and is indeed a kind of slavery, a slavery that comes from a lack of faith in the simple power of presence. There is nothing more. We will only be free when we know that in our full presence we are enough.

For Peh Sach: God's Never-ending Speech

To feel that God is constantly involved in our lives and redeeming us, continually performing miracles on our behalf right now – that is the goal of the Seder. Not just to remember the past and be thankful, but to feel the constant Presence, care and involvement of God in our lives.

There is a famous play on the name Pesach – reading it as peh sach – a mouth that speaks. Normally we understand this mouth that speaks as our own mouth speaking the story of the exodus. The Kedushat Levi reads it differently; the mouth that speaks on Pesach is the mouth of God continually speaking. God is a constantly “speaking mouth.”

What does this mean? God created the world through speech acts. He said “let there be light” and there was light. One might think that after this beneficent act of creation, He disappeared. He set the world in motion and sat back and watched. But no, to say that God is a continually speaking mouth is to say that in some sense, creation never ended. God is constantly speaking the world into existence. As we say each morning, He is mehadesh betuvo bekhol yom tamid maaseh breishit, He is, in His goodness, renewing the work of creation each and every day. At each moment, He continually speaks each of us and every piece of grass into continued existence. Creation was not a one-time act, but a never-ending show of love.

With the exodus from Egypt, God manifested to the world this hidden continual care, says the Kedushat Levi. We normally don’t take notice of it, but then, suddenly, through miraculous interventions (the plagues and the Red Sea) that went against the natural order that He had set up, God showed that He was still involved on a regular basis. By clearly acting in the world, He manifested what is normally hidden – His continued involvement in the world He created. It is as if He popped up and said – See?! I have been here and involved all the time. I am showing you now so you can know it and remember.

On Pesach we remember that God is a constant peh sach by ourselves becoming a peh sach. We continually, each year on Pesach and each day in the Shma, again and again, speak this truth into the universe: God did not leave; God is here, Present at all times and involved in our lives. Through speech acts of remembering and reminding, we experience His continued involvement; we activate that sense of His speech through our own speech.

What does it mean to feel God’s continued miraculous involvement in our lives? We are so full of problems and suffering and worries and unbelief. How do we feel God’s continual redemption? I am searching myself but there are little inklings, and I think it is the little inklings of this Presence that Pesach asks us to notice and speak out loud – the moments when there is indeed some sense of personal redemption, when we are helped or healed or cared for or guided or given strength where there is no strength. There are also moments of revelation, moments when we get a sudden insight, a glimpse of some greater truth or understanding, what is known in Hebrew as a hiddush, “a new thought,” a gift from God’s constant work of renewal in the world. And finally there is constantly around us evidence of God’s continual care in the form of nature, the miracle of our own existence and of the beautiful universe around us. Perhaps that is why Pesach is in the spring, a time when the physical world is indeed in a time of glorious renewal, a new act of creation.

These are all little shafts of divine light entering the universe, little glimpses of God’s constant care. On Pesach we become a peh sach, a mouth that speaks this truth of God’s own continually speaking mouth. He is here now and still speaking to us. Let us pause and enter the conversation.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Parashat Shemini: There is No Need for Extra

In the story of the death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, there is a moment that sometimes gets lost, probably the most important moment. It is the moment just before they act, the moment when, after all 7 days of practice and an eighth day of rituals and sacrifices, God’s Glory actually finally does appear to the people; the people perceive it, and the people sing out and fall on their faces, joyous and awed and totally satiated from this experience of the divine.

What happens next is “extra,” as my teenage students would say. Nadav and Avihu take pans and bring incense and fire “which they were not commanded to do.” There are many interpretations of what exactly Nadav and Avihu did wrong, and a lot of them seem true and sensible and have something to teach us. But at this moment it seems to me that the primary problem was simply that their action was “extra,” and sometimes extra actually detracts from the moment.

There is nothing more complete than an experience of divine presence. Nothing more could possibly be needed. The people as a whole understood this; they did not act; they re-acted --- they performed two actions that showed on the outside how they were taking in this incredible sight on this inside; they sang, expressing joy and praise (the Sefat Emet says it was the same song they sang at the Sea) and they fell on their faces, expressing awe and a sense of overwhelm and humility at the enormity of the experience.

Nadav and Avihu, by contrast, actually took away from the experience because they took a new action, as if what had just happened was not complete on its own. This is very important. We often don’t appreciate the fullness of our moments because we are too busy trying to improve on them, to add icing to the cake, to add more activities to our schedule, to add another dish to the menu, to add another phrase to the sentence. We think more is needed, that there is a need for “extra,” when actually the world, God, ourselves are all already enough. Let me say it again – the world, God, ourselves are all already enough.

We are so restless sometimes, worrying about adding and acting and more and new and outdoing the past generation and the last moment, but the truth is that this moment is enough, totally complete in itself. All that is asked of us is to acknowledge its magnificence, not to bring new fires, but simply to sing out as we feel the fullness of this moment, the fullness of God’s goodness filling us up. It is enough.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

For Purim: Groundless Together

Purim – both its story and the way we celebrate it – always gives me a vague feeling of unease and instability.

First, the story. Yes, we do win in the end, but the forces against us feel very real, and the victory sudden and unreliable. It is the story of Jewish history; they hate us and want to kill us, but somehow we survive, and are even victorious. The problem is that it keeps happening, and often, although we end up surviving as a people, there is a fair amount of suffering before we get there. The whole thing does feel a little like a pur, “a lot;” there is nothing stable here; at any random moment, we could be subject to hatred and killing, just as at any moment we could be granted salvation. There is nothing to hold on to, no ground to walk on.

The celebration only seems to intensify this sense of groundlessness. All rules are temporarily suspended; drink as much as you want; wear whatever clothes you want; say rash things in the guise of humor; “boo” someone in public. It is as if there are no longer any inhibitions in public or in private. The gemara (Megillah 7b) tells a story about two rabbis who had a se’udah together on Purim; they drank too much and one killed the other. On Purim anything goes. It is as if we all feel this sense of groundlessness and instability about our futures and so we adopt a gallows humor; who knows if we will live or die so might as well enjoy today and not worry about any rules!

There is a truth to the groundlessness behind Purim; we actually do have very little control of the future. We are like ships tossed in the sea, dates cast in a lot. Purim asks us to surrender to this reality and even revel in it.

What anchors us on Purim? What normally anchors us is God, but I don’t think that it is God that anchors us on Purim. His name is absent from the Megillah, and indeed, not a single one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is directed toward God; we read the story (no God); we eat a meal together; we send each other food gifts; and we take care of the needy.

No, Purim is not focused on God. Though we know that God lies behind our redemption and our survival time and again, our experience of history is that we are tossed about in an unpredictable way. Yes, in the end, He will come to our rescue, and that does provide some long-term comfort, but in the mean time, when we look around, what do we have to hold on to? Each other.

We don’t know what will happen tomorrow and there is a certain unease we have to live with. Purim’s answer to that unease is to turn to one another. All four mitzvot involve gathering – hearing the Megillah is to be done in large groups; mishloach manot are to share food and bring a sense of kinship ish lere’ehu, “a person to his fellow;” we take care of the poor; and we eat festive meals together. All are done together.

It is as if we have all been riding a boat together for a long time. We don’t really know when we will reach our faroff destination. There have been storms and bright days and even hurricanes, and through it all, the one constant has been one another. We pause for a moment and appreciate each other, appreciate that we are on this journey together. As we are tossed about on the sea, there is some comfort in knowing that we are not alone.