Thursday, January 24, 2019

Parashat Yitro: Clearing Time to Go up the Mountain

Very strange. We always imagine that God called Moshe to come up the mountain and that’s how he knew it was the time and place for the big event. But if you read the verses, actually what happens is that the people camp across from the mountain and Moshe goes up on his accord, without any call from God. Only after Moshe takes the first step does God then call to him and begin the process (Exodus 19:3).

This makes me wonder: Perhaps God was there on the mountain waiting for many days, years, generations even, for someone like Moshe to come up and want the Torah. Perhaps God is always simply there waiting for us to reach out, to uncover Him, to ask for His Torah, for His Presence to be revealed to us in the world. We think we are waiting for Him to show Himself. But perhaps it is for us to begin the climb up the mountain. There is a famous midrash that says that God’s voice calls out every single day from the Temple Mount: “Return, My children!” The fact that we don’t hear it has to do with our own inability to tune in. The voice is there; the Torah is there; God is on the mountain; we just have to go up.

What is it that allowed Moshe to tune in at that particular moment? The Torah tells us in its prelude to Mount Sinai. Yitro comes and sees his son-in-law serving as a judge from early morning until nightfall every day, dealing with every little squabble in the camp. Up till now Moshe was too frenetically busy to climb the mountain in search of God, to hear God’s call, or to receive His word. A person needs to open herself, to free herself, at least a little bit, in order to hear God.

What Yitro advises is that Moshe get auxiliary judges to do most of the judging so that Moshe’s time is free to serve as an emissary between God and the people, bringing their issues to God and bringing God’s laws to them. In other words, Yitro tells him – you are too busy to serve your real purpose right now! Your real job is with God! You can’t do it all. Only if you free yourself up from all of these other daily responsibilities will you be able to do the real service you are here to do – to serve as a bridge between God and the people. At the end of his advice, Yitro says to Moshe, “If you do this thing,” then vetzivekha Elokhim, literally, “God will command you (Exodus 18:23).” In other words, if you do this thing, if you free yourself in this way, then you will make yourself into a vessel for His commandments.

There are two take-aways from all of this. First, we shouldn’t be waiting for the “call.” We should start the climb, take the initiative in our relationship with God, in our search for His Torah and for His presence. He is waiting for us to approach.

Second, we need to make the time to hear God. If our lives are filled with frenetic rushing and details, we will not be serving our real purpose as a divine vessel. Obviously not everyone is Moshe, but we all have a particular divine purpose in this world, and somewhere inside us, we know what it is. Often, though, what happens is that we let life with all its details and busyness dictate how we should spend our time, rather than being clear about what our particular role is meant to be and setting our own agenda and priorities so that we can actually do it. May we find the time to set out up the mountain!

Friday, January 18, 2019

Parashat Bshallach: Let it Shine!

The end -- the culmination of the exodus -- is song. A song of spontaneous praise to the Lord. In next week’s parsha, the song will need to be turned into law, into a way of living every day with God’s presence in our actions, but for now, what is captured is the essential religious sentiment, the point of leaving Egypt – to feel the call to praise God rising up in our hearts, to feel the sense of amazement and gratitude at God’s miraculous salvation.

It is on the 7th day since the exodus that the Israelites are at the Sea and sing this Song, and so each year we celebrate this Song on the 7th day of Passover. The Sefat Emet connects this 7th day to our weekly 7th day of Shabbat, and this song to the song of that day each week -- tov lehodot laShem ulazamer leshimkha elyon. It is good to praise God and to sing to Your name, Most High. Like the seventh day of Passover, Shabbat is the telos of creation; its purpose is to pause and notice and appreciate and sing out in praise and amazement at the glories of the Lord in our world. It turns out that such songs of praise are the very purpose of our existence.

But how do we sing? How do we praise? Where is this song of praise inside us? In a discussion with some high school students last week about the phrase, Hashem sefatay Tiftah, ufi yagid tehilatekha, “O God, open my lips, so that my mouth may say Your praise,” what came out was the difficulty we all have with praise. It’s a lie, one girl said. When God opens my lips, what comes out is not praise.

But perhaps it is. Perhaps deep down, if we got rid of the obstacles and the distractions and were really present and allowed ourselves to be open to what is and to feel God’s Presence, perhaps what we would find inside ourselves – as the Israelites did at the Sea – perhaps what we would find at the very core is indeed praise, is a song of light and gratitude and amazement. Passing by the Music Room on my way out of AJA today, what wafted out was the song, “This little light of mine – I’m going to let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” What would happen if we did let it shine? Sometimes I can see clearly that there is inside each and every one of us a song of such light and such brightness, such clarity and brilliance and total praise for what is – that the world would explode if we all sang at once. Perhaps this was the experience at the Sea.

The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday and it seems poignant and fitting that it was on the week of our reading of the Song at the Sea. As she wrote, “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.” May we know how to see and sing with amazement as she did and as did the Israelites at the Sea. May God Himself open up the locked places inside us to let the song out. Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!

Monday, December 10, 2018

As Chanukah Wanes: Guest Post by Debra Shaffer Seeman (Written on the 8th Day, Inspired by Previous Post on the "Beyond")

If creation is 7 days, the perfect completion. And Chanukah is 8, למעלה מן הטבע - that which goes beyond the natural world - then here we find ourselves on that day. That 8th day of Chanukah; the day that goes beyond. That day when boundaries melt and worlds conflate and being created into the perfect world isn't quite enough anymore. This is the day of completion plus one. It's the day when the Divine sparks within each of us dance freely and join up with their Source under the cosmic disco balls of the worlds. It's the day when the fire, the heat and light and warmth and scorch and potential for both building and destruction, when the flames no longer visible to the naked eye take root within us to be accessed during the darkness of the seasons to come. It's the day when we transition the light, the totally and completely non-utilitarian light, the light which may be used for nothing except to teach us to truly see, the "new ray of peace uncalled (which) illumes my inmost mind" - it's the 8th day when we transition that light from "beyond" into the rest of our lives.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Some Chanukah Thoughts

#1: Chanukah and the "Beyond"

There is more to us than flesh and bones. There is more to the world than its physical appearance. There is something “beyond” – beyond nature, beyond our physical limitations, beyond this world.

Chanukah reminds us of the existence of this “beyond.” It is a holiday of 8 days. The world was created in 7 days – that is the simple physical truth of nature. But 8 – that is “beyond” creation, beyond nature, beyond the normal workings of the world.

For the Jews to have won against the Syrian Greeks was a piece of this “beyond,” as was the miracle of the light lasting so long – “beyond” its normal natural physical limitations.

We are more than we think we are, and there is more to the world than we see at all times. Light, fire is a symbol of this divine spiritual energy, felt yet difficult to hold or explain, effervescent yet extremely powerful.

We are not allowed to “use” this light we light on Chanukah for normal physical purposes, to count coins, for instance. And women have a custom not to do any practical work during the time the candles are lit, laundry or cooking, for instance. Why? Because Chanukah is not about the practical in this world. It asks us to take a step out of our normal selves and see that we are more than physical bodies needing to count coins and do laundry and cook meals. Yes, fire is practical – it helps us see and cook and be warm. But there is also a spiritual fire – kodesh hem – these candles are sacred – they partake of the divine light of our spirit, the part of each one of us that is from the “beyond.”

We often feel so daunted by our limitations in this world, so weighed down by mere survival and getting through our daily routines. Chanukah asks us to remember the spirit, to remember the “beyond” that is inside us and all around us, to feel the spark that is not limited by the normal workings of the world.

#2: Chanukah: An Education in Miracles

Chanukah is related to the word chinuch, education. On Chanukah we educate ourselves, we train ourselves in the ability to see miracles in the world.

Daliya Wallenstein, one of my high school students, had a beautiful explanation for Bet Shammai’s Chanukah candle-lighting opinion. According to Bet Shammai, we begin with 8 candles and light one fewer each night until on the last night we light one. Why? This student suggested that it is a matter of spiritual training.

When we begin Chanukah, we are not yet adept at seeing miracles in the world. The only type of miracle we can acknowledge is the really big one, the kind that has 8 candles with all their sparkling fireworks, the kind that hits us over the head with its magnificence and clarity, like the miracles of Chanukah itself, the uneven battle and the oil that kept lasting. We can look back on history and marvel, and acknowledge that God’s hand is in this world through such miracles. So that’s the starting point – we are turned on to thinking about miracles through a jolt to the system of 8 candles and great miracles.

But gradually the point of this exercise is to learn to see the smaller miracles, too. It is a training in our eye-sight. At first we can only detect the light that is really bright, but gradually we learn to see light that is a little less bright, too, 7 candles worth, then 6, and so forth, until on the last night we are able to see the light of a single candle; we have learned to see even the smaller miracles of this world. Now we are ready to return to the everyday world and see the hidden miracles there, too.

Another support for this conception of Chanukah as a training specifically in “seeing” is the strange halakhah, not often put into practice, that if one will not be able to light candles that night, and one “sees” someone else’s lit menorah, one can say the brachah of she’asah nissim on the simple act of seeing the light. This is the brachah in which we acknowledge that God did miracles for us. Lighting the light is important, but there is also here something key about the ability to see, to learn to see and witness God’s miracles in this world.

Though we don’t follow Bet Shammai, may we learn from him to train ourselves to “see” even the smaller lights of the miraculous in this world, perhaps, like Bet Hillel, learning to see more and more of them over time.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Parashat Vayishlach: The Sun Rose For Him

I was taking a walk the other day, feeling a little glum, when I noticed the ginkgo tree up the street. The sky was blue and the sun was shining on it just so, making its yellow leaves radiant and aglow. I stopped in wonder and thought, “Thank you, God, for this gift today.” I felt a tiny sliver of warmth enter my system. At that moment, it seemed that that tree’s beauty was created just for me, to give me joy and remind me of God’s care.

Was I wrong? Wasn’t the whole world created for each and every one of us? At all moments this is true; the world was created and continues at each moment to be created and to exist for our sakes; it runs off the energy of divine love. This is true at all moments, but we only perceive it on rare occasions.

Yaakov had such a moment in this week’s parsha. After his struggle with the angel on the night before he meets Esav, the Torah says vayizrah lo hashemesh, “The sun rose for him” (Gen 32:32). What does that mean -- “the sun rose for him”? Didn’t the sun rise over that whole part of the world and all the people in it? Why “for him”? Rashi explains that a miracle occurred and the sun literally did rise for him -- a little early that day – because God wanted to heal him from his limp injury.

God wanted to take care of Yaakov in his time of need, and the expression of that care was the shining of the sun. Miraculous sunrises don’t happen for most of us, but maybe this miraculous one is a symbol of all the regular everyday signs of God’s continuous care of us – the daily rising of the sun and blooming of the trees and flowers, the daily gifts of life and nurturing in us and around us.

Did Yaakov feel taken care of? Did he notice the sun rise early and think, “God did that just for me?” We don’t know. We only know that it was intended “for him.” So much may be intended “for us” that we don’t notice or appreciate, not just God’s love, but also the love and care of those around us. Sometimes we are in a place where we can take it in and sometimes, often when we most need it, we don’t see it and we don’t feel it; we are alone in our neediness. This sunrise of Yaakov’s is a good reminder in those low moments that there is always love and care “for us” available in the universe; it is always there; we just have to remember to notice it and feel it.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Parashat Toldot: Rivka's Love

The Torah says that Yitzhak loved Esav ki tzayid befiv, “because” of the hunting that Esav used to bring him to eat, while Rivka loved Yaakov. There is no reason attached to Rivka’s love; she simply loved him. The rabbis cite this love as an example of ahavah she’einah teluya badavar, a love that, unlike Yitzhak’s, is not dependent on anything.

The rabbis explain that while love that is dependent on something fades easily, as soon as the thing is gone, love that is not dependent on anything lasts forever. For this reason the pasuk uses the present tense to describe Rivka’s love, ohevet, instead of the past tense as it does for Yitzhak. Rikva’s is a love that is ever present, ever growing, ever constant, not capable of becoming past tense.

The Sefat Emet connects this model of love to God’s love for us. It is forever. It is constant. It is not capable of being annulled because it is not dependent on anything. As he says, God loves us just because we are His; there is no reason; His love is not dependent on a single thing, af lo bema’aseyhem, “not even on their deeds.” Not even on our deeds, not even on the doing of the mitzvot He commanded us to do. Yes, God wants us to live a good life, so He gave us the Torah and advised us how to live, but we need to know that His love for us does not depend on our following His command. We are simply loved.

Do we feel this love? Do we feel its constancy, its unwavering stability, the way it holds us in whatever place we are? Do we feel its present tense – like Rivka, God is ohev – He loves us right now, at this moment, whatever the moment. Do we feel its unconditional nature – how we do not need to earn it or deserve it in any way? We don’t have to measure up. We are simply loved.

Yes, yes, God also has expectations of us and wants us to be good in the world and follow His mitzvot. But it feels to me that the only real way to spread love in the world – our ultimate goal – the only real way is to first of all feel that you yourself are loved totally and unconditionally. It is only out of this place of love that we can let that love spread out in streams to all those who need it. Change, goodness, fixing only happens in such a loving embrace. May we love and feel loved in this Rivka way.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Parashat Haye Sarah: On Pittsburgh, Yitzhak and Love

In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, what I feel and what I think many of us feel, is vulnerable, insecure. We are suddenly acutely aware of what has always been true – that there are people who hate us and want to kill us, that we may at any time be killed for being Jews.

Looking at the end of last week’s parsha and this one through this prism, I am struck by the realization that Yitzhak must have had a similar feeling of vulnerability. He would have been the first martyr, the first to be sacrificed for the sanctification of God’s name. He was saved from the knife, yes, but that experience of being under the knife, of being so close to mortal danger, surely must have inscribed into his psyche the constant spectre of being killed as a child of Avraham.

But of course he doesn’t die, and nor do all of us at any time. What we are left with is, like Yitzhak, to figure out how to live with this spectre of the knife hanging over us.

When we next see Yitzhak after the akedah, he is standing in a field, “contemplating.” Perhaps he is contemplating precisely this question – how does one continue to live in such a world, where God seems to sometimes want Jewish souls as sacrifices, how does one face the constant fear of danger and annihilation?

The answer comes soon afterwards, as the camels carrying Rivka rise on the scene. The Torah tells us that Yitzhak takes her into his mother’s tent; she becomes his wife; he loves her; he is comforted over the loss of his mother.

The loss of his mother. Sarah, in some ways, ended up being the real sacrificial lamb of the akedah. Her death is told to us immediately after that story, and she dies young – almost 50 years younger than Avraham when he dies. The midrash says she dies when she hears the news that Avraham had gone to sacrifice her son, not knowing that he would be spared.

And so Yitzhak is left with a double burden post-akedah. Like us, he has on the one hand to mourn those that did die, and on the other hand, to figure out how to continue to live in the face of the knowledge of such tragedy and perpetual danger.

The answer is LOVE. I believe that this is the first time in the Torah that the root ahavah , love, is used. Through his encounter with suffering, Yitzhak discovers love. Yitzhak discovers that the only comfort in such a situation, the only way to move forward is to focus on love. He loves Rivka and that love is itself a comfort.

Love is more than a comfort. It is an anchor and a purpose in a tops- turvy, inexplicable and occasionally miserable world. Connection to others – whether in synagogue at a memorial service, in school teaching Torah to students, or at home with my family – these connections, these places of love are indeed what comfort me and give me hope. Not hope for myself, necessarily, but hope for our people and for all of humanity. Love lifts us out of ourselves. We are attached to something beyond ourselves, to other humans and to a force that is stronger than hatred, stronger than death, stronger than any individual’s life. There is nothing that can destroy love.

Viktor Frankl famously recounts how, on one frozen miserable forced march from the concentration camp gates to the inmates’ working trenches, a fellow inmate whispers to him: “If our wives could see us now!” Frankl tells how he is reminded of his wife and completely transported by this thought and his intense love for her:

"My mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love."

Yitzhak knew this. The salvation of man is through love. Having seen the knife, he knew that love was the only answer.