Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Parashat Vayigash: On Rapprochements and Scarcity

This parsha is about the coming together of Yaakov’s family, its rapprochement and reunification. This is the first family in the book of Genesis who does come together in this way. Cain kills Abel, Yitzhak and Yishmael are estranged from one another, and Yaakov and Esav, while meeting and making peace, ultimately each go their separate ways. But with the children of Yaakov is born the nation; all of his sons are our ancestors, and so they must come together, must be permanently reunited.

The parsha is called Vayigash for good reason. Vayigash means “And he approached.” The verse refers to Yehudah, but everyone does some approaching and meeting in this parsha. Four separate meetings take place – that of Yosef and his brothers, Yosef and his father, Pharaoh and the brothers and Pharaoh and the father. That’s why they live in “Goshen,” the place of approaching or coming together. Yosef uses the same words to coax his brothers to come toward him after his frightening revelation of his identity, geshu na elay, “Come towards me.” Coming together is the name of the game.

What strikes me about all this coming together is that it is driven by scarcity. There is the scarcity of food all around them, the great 7-year famine which physically drives the brothers to go down to Egypt first once and then a second time, ultimately leading to their reunification with their brother.

And then there is another type of scarcity, a sense in which time feels scarce, especially the time left in Yaakov’s life. It is this worry over his father’s approaching death that drives Yosef’s revelation to his brothers. He hears Yehudah speak of his father’s death, of how likely it is that his father will die from grief if Binyamin does not return (44:31), and Yosef is scared. All along, he’d been asking about the health of his father and heard it was fine (“shalom,” 43:28), but now, when he hears death might be around the corner, he realizes he must reveal himself immediately; there is no time to waste. “I am Yosef,” he says, “Is my father still alive (45:3)?” In other words, wait. Hold on. Can I still stop the story early enough to change the ending, to keep my father alive right now so I can still see him and he me before he dies? Hurry, hurry, he says to his brothers. Bring my father to me right away.

There is a deep lesson here. We most appreciate our loved ones when we are faced with the prospect of losing one another. Whoever has had a child come close to death and escape it, feels forever the gift of that child’s life in a different way. The trick is to remember that death is eventually the end for us all, so that life is always scarce, not just at the end. We should love and hunger for each other, desire such “Goshen” meetings, like we would hunger for scarce food in a famine. Part of what makes this parsha such a tear-jerker (Yosef himself cries 4 times) is our sense of regret, of the loss of all those years the family spent apart. They needed that time and that suffering to learn some lessons, but perhaps we can learn them just by reading their story.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Parashat Miketz: Seeing God in the Dreidl

The dreidl spins and spins, like the world around us. Sometimes we land on a “gimmel” or a “heh,” and sometimes we land on a “nun” or a “shin.” Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.

The funny thing about the dreidl is that, like the lots of Purim, it makes it seem like everything has to do with luck. But at the same time, the message of its letters is otherwise: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham. “A great miracle happened there.” Miracles imply divine control, that there is some order or purpose in the universe, not just dumb luck.

Yosef’s story is similar. He starts out on top, a beloved son, adored by his father, with dreams of grandeur, but then he gets pushed down and down some more. He is thrown down into a pit, “brought down” to Egypt as a slave, and sent further down into the “pit” of jail. Finally, in this week’s parsha, his “luck” turns again, and he rises quickly to the position of second to the king, riding high through the streets in a chariot.

Is that all Yosef’s story is? A story of good and bad luck, like the randomly spinning dreidl?

Yosef himself thinks not. His skill is to interpret dreams and also to interpret life. What he sees in these dreams is always a plan. At first, in his own dream, he imagines that he himself is the mover of this plan, the center of the universe. As a slave in Egypt, he learns otherwise, so that when he comes to interpret the baker and the cup-bearer’s dreams, he sees king Pharaoh as the planner, the one who has the power to either impale or re-instate his servants. Finally, in this week’s parsha, Yosef comes to terms with the true Planner, the real King, the Master of the Universe. What do Pharaoh’s dreams of fat and skinny cows and grain mean, according to Yosef? They mean that God has a plan and that God has revealed this plan to Pharaoh. And what do Yosef’s own ups and downs mean? Yes, he tells his brothers, you meant evil when you sold me, but see, it was all part of a divine plan to feed people.

Yosef lives in the same kind of world we do. Bad things happen, good things happen, and it all seems random. God no longer speaks directly to Yosef as he did to his ancestors, and there are no clear miracles. Yosef is the first of the patriarchs to have children without divine intervention.

In such a world, to be great is not to converse with God, not to hear God’s voice or to speak His words, but to be able to read God’s presence in the world as it is, to be a Tzafnat Paneah, “an interpreter of hidden things,” as Yosef is called in Egypt. Yosef’s ability to do this -- his ability to see in Pharaoh’s dream the marks of a divine plan -- is the key to his success. It is only when Yosef learns to speak, not of his own dreams of greatness, but of God’s plan, that he can become great. Being great in this kind of seemingly random world involves the ability to read the words: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham on the swirling dreidl of life.

This essay was inspired by the story “Right Side Up” by Barbara Diamond Goldin and by a shiur given last shabbat by Joel Linsider at Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob.

An Extra Thought on Numbers and Yosef’s Dreams:

There are 3 sets of dreams in the Yosef narrative. In both the second and third set, the numbers in the dreams correspond, according to Yosef, to time elements. The 3 branches of the vine in the cup-bearer’s dream and the 3 baskets in the baker’s dream each correspond to 3 days. In Pharaoh’s dreams, the 7 cows, skinny and fat, and the 7 ears of grain, skinny and fat, all correspond to 7 years.

What about the first set of dreams, Yosef’s own? There is no number given in the first of his dreams (though it refers to his brothers’ sheaves of wheat, apparently 11), but in the second he says that the sun, the moon and 11 stars will come and bow down to him. On one level, the dream clearly refers to his father and mother (although dead at the time) and 11 brothers. But what if we also apply the time/number interpretation to this dream? What do we come up with?

1 sun + 1 moon + 11 stars = 13. The Torah does not often tell us its protagonists’ ages, but it tells us that when Yosef had this dream he was 17 years old (37:2) and that when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and thereby became a vice-roy with many people bowing down to him, he was 30 years old (41:46). 30 – 17 = 13. The celestial elements in Yosef’s dream would then correspond to the number of years until his dream was to be fulfilled.

(What about the number 11? Yosef’s first dream involves 11 sheaves of wheat, though they are not numbered there, and in the second dream the number 11 stands out. But why 11, if, as we have just seen, it was 13 years until Yosef’s dreams were fulfilled? The Torah emphasizes that Pharaoh had his dreams “after 2 years.” Based on this strange detail, the rabbis say that Pharaoh was actually supposed to dream his dream 2 years earlier but that God postponed the event as a punishment to Yosef for trying to get the cup-bearer to help him get out of jail instead of relying on God. Perhaps then Yosef’s dreams of 11 sheaves and 11 stars refer to the 11 year time-frame after which he was supposed to have his dream fulfilled? The original plan was 11 years so the dream had 11 stars. The addtion of the sun and the moon turns the number to 13, corresponding to the actual number of years it took.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Some Chanukah Thoughts

This year, the first and the last nights of Chanukah fall on Friday night. Twice we will be lighting double candles, those for Chanukah and those for Shabbat.

Chanukah candles are not like Shabbat candles. Shabbat candles are for use, for oneg, “pleasure,” to provide light to sit and eat by on Friday night. Chanukah candles, on the other hand, may not be used at all. V’eyn lekha reshut lehishtamesh bahem ela lirotam belvad. “You do not have permission to use them but only to look upon them.” If you want light to eat or read by, light another lamp as well. These candles are not ordinary lights; they are kadosh, holy.

This law about the use of candles expresses a basic theme of Chanukah – its emphasis on what is out of the ordinary, the supernatural, the miraculous. Shabbat celebrates the creation of the natural world in 7 days, but Chanukah has 8 days. It moves on into the realm of the supernatural -- the realm of the nes, the miracle.

Chief among such miracles is the very existence of our nation. On Chanukah we celebrate the ability of our nation to have survived a war with the Syrian Greek army against all odds. Rabim beyad me’atim. They were mighty and numerous and we were few and weak. By the normal order of things, we should have been defeated, defeated then, and defeated again in the many persecutions that preceded and followed Chanukah (see the Maoz Tzur song). That we weren’t defeated, that we are still hanging on, is indeed a miracle.

This survival theme is also the meaning of the oil story, the story of the jug of oil which should have lasted only one day but ended up lasting eight. We are the flame lit by that jug of oil, surviving and burning for all these years beyond all reasonable expectations. And the reason our flame keeps burning, the reason we survive, is that our jug of oil, the Torah, will never run out. We are fueled by the Torah, fueled by precisely this kind of story. You see, the story is actually speaking about itself, about its own future, its own tenacity to live and keep burning in us.

For here we are, not just alive, but lighting Chanukah candles, carrying on an ancient tradition. The Hebrew word nes means both “miracle” and “sign-post.” When we light candles, we are simultaneously commemorating a miracle of the past and creating a sign-post for the present and the future, a sign-post of our commitment to this memory, our heritage. While we are busy marking a miracle of the past, we are also creating a miracle in the present, the miracle of the past’s survival in ourselves and our children.

On Shabbat we thank God for creating the world with all its physical lights -- its sun and its moon and its stars. On Chanukah we thank God for the miracle of another kind of light, for the miracle of a light which burns within us and can never be extinguished.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Parashat Vayishlah: Yaakov's Transformation

People are often bothered by the unseemly deeds of our ancestors, especially those of Yaakov, the trickster. What kind of role-model is he for us and for our children?

Actually, a very good role model. Not because of who he is, but because of who he works to become, because of how he changes and grows over time.

Yaakov transforms himself from a Yaakov to a Yisrael. He first receives this name change as a blessing from the angel with whom he fights. As Rashi points out, the name change is fitting because it is the first blessing Yaakov earns through an open, direct confrontation (related to the word Yisrael) rather than through deception and crookedness (related to the word Yaakov). He has fought the angel face to face as opposed to hiding behind the skin of his brother, fooling his father into giving him his brother’s blessing.

A new face-to-face kind of openness is at the heart of Yaakov’s, or rather, Yisrael’s, new way of being, as the Torah makes clear through the repeated use of the word panim, “face,” in this story. Yaakov calls the place Peniel because of this face to face – panim el panim – encounter with the angel. And his encounter with Esav is also described in these open terms. What he hopes for ahead of time is to see Esav’s face, and to win his forgiveness and favor, all three of which are described using the term panim (32:21). And, when he does actually meet Esav, Yaakov describes the encounter as fulfilling exactly this panim goal – “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10).

Yaakov has been in many situations in which faces could not be openly seen. He was born holding on to his brother’s heel, not seeing his face. Later, when it came to blessings, his father, in his blindness, could not see his sons’ faces, relying instead, mistakenly, on the feel of their arms as he blessed the wrong son. And Yaakov himself could not see the face of his bride when, in the darkness of night, he was given Leah instead of Rachel. Yaakov wants out of this cycle of darkness and trickery. It is time for night to end and the honesty of daylight to shine forth.

And so it does. When Yaakov runs away from Esav in the beginning of last week’s parsha, the Torah tells us the sun was setting (28:11), but here, when Yaakov returns, ready for an open-faced encounter with his brother, the verse instead reads: Vayizrah lo hashemesh, “And the sun rose for him (32:32)” A new day has dawned for Yaakov/Yisrael, one which is to be bright with honesty rather than dark with hiding and trickery.

Yaakov is not perfect. He is, like us, a struggler, a striver. And in that sense, he is a perfect role model, a perfect father for our people, as he models not a particular personality trait or great deed but a process, the process and the promise of personal growth and transformation.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Parashat Vayetze: In Place of God

Another parsha, another barren woman, and another interaction between husband and wife over the problem.

Rahel complains to Yaakov of her situation, saying, “Give me children, or else I’ll die” (30:1). She is clearly an emotional wreck. What is Yaakov’s reaction? Anger. He says: Hatahat Elokim anokhi? “Can I take the place of God who has denied you fruit of the womb?” I’m not God; I can’t solve the problem. What do you want me to do?

The midrash (Breishit Rabbah 71.7) compares this reaction to the Job verse, “Does a wise man answer with windy opinions, and fill his belly with the east wind (15:2),” i.e. with anger? Such a reaction is not appropriate for Yaakov. According to the midrash, God says to him: Is this how one answers those in distress?

And what is the proper response to those in distress? Learn from God. Sometimes He fixes the problem, but other times, He merely comes and says, “Don’t be scared. I am with you. All will be well.” (See for instance Genesis 15:1, 26:24, 28:15 and 46:3). The answer to Yaakov’s question is: Yes! You are in fact in place of God, not in terms of fixing the problem – it’s true, that is out of your reach – but in terms of being a sympathetic, comforting presence for your wife. When Cain asked God, hashomer ahi anokhi, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he assumed the answer was no, but the reader knows the answer is yes. Yes, we are all our brothers’ keepers, and yes, we are all in place of God for one another.

Yaakov fails here. Perhaps he has too much work stress in dealing with the tricky Lavan. But not to worry. There is a tikkun (literally, “a repair”) for this lack of sympathy, a time when things will get repaired and redeemed. At the end of the book of Genesis, after Yaakov dies, the brothers come to Yosef, worried that Yosef will now wreak vengeance on them for selling him down to Egypt. But no. Yosef uses Yaakov’s words, but, as Nehama Leibowitz points out, in a new sympathetic twist: “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God?” Hatahat Elokim ani? (50:19). I will not judge you and punish you for I am merely a human; such judgments are for God to make.

Sometimes it is appropriate to take the place of God and sometimes it is not. Yosef, in his kindness, knew when not to, had learned not to put himself above his brothers in that way. Yaakov, in his anger, did not understand that it is precisely in moments of distress for those we care about that we are given the ability to take the place of God, to offer the solace of our company and sympathy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Parashat Toldot: Yitzhak as the Good Husband

Avraham had many admirable characteristics, but he was not always the most attentive husband. His son, Yitzhak, on the other hand, now he was a good husband.

Yitzhak’s response to Rivkah’s barrenness was quite different from Avraham’s response to Sarah’s. Yitzhak prays for her. What a novel concept! Avraham spends a parsha and a half waiting for a child from Sarah but he never actually asks God to grant her one. He prays for the Sodomites but not for his wife. He is happy to accept a concubine in her place, and seems satisfied with the child born of that consummation, not worrying that Sarah still has no child.

Not so Yitzhak. Yitzhak pleads with God, standing opposite Rivkah – lenokhah ishto, literally “in the presence of his wife,” praying on her behalf, and keeping her ever-“present” in his thoughts (25:21). The midrash says that Yitzhak and Rivkah each stood in opposite corners of a room and said to God: “Master of the Universe, please, I only want to have a child together with this spouse.” A concubine is simply not an option.

Avraham was never officially rebuked for his inattentiveness to his wife, but I wonder if there isn’t a hint of a rebuke in the angels’ words to him: Ayeh Sarah ishtekha, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” This word, ayeh, “where,” after all, has a history of rebuke. After the sin of the Garden of Eden, God says to the hiding Adam, Ayeka, “Where are you?” and after Cain kills Abel, God again says, Ay hevel ahikha, “Where is Abel, your brother?” In both these situations, of course, God knows full well the person’s physical location. The question is rather one of responsibility. Where is this person whom you are responsible for? So, too, with the angels and Avraham. “Where is Sarah your wife?” She is your wife; why isn’t she more present for you?

God responds in kind to each of the patriarchs, mirroring their concerns. He engages Avraham in a discussion about the justice of killing the Sodomites. But since Avraham doesn’t show he cares that much about having a child from Sarah – Ishmael seems enough-- God grants him only one, after a long wait, and then threatens to take that child away.

Yitzhak, on the other hand, standing as he does lenokhah ishto, with his wife totally present for him, receives from God two children from that beloved wife in short order. The Torah actually uses the same word for Yitzhak’s pleading and for God’s responding, Vayetar and Vaye’ater. God mirrors Yitzhak’s concerns, joining him in his efforts. The midrash compares the situation to a father and son who are each digging their way toward each other from opposite ends of a tunnel. Yitzhak has chosen to stand together with Rivkah, and so God chooses to stand with Yitzhak in that endeavor. We often wonder: Does God answer our prayers? We see from Yitzhak that God’s response depends on our own attitudes, that God mirrors our own deeds of caring in this world.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Parashat Hayei-Sarah: Avraham's Legacy

Avraham and Sarah are remarkable individuals. But what happens when they die? This week’s parsha deals with their deaths, Sarah at the start of the parsha and Avraham at the end. And the lesson of this week’s parsha is this: Their legacy continues. Avraham and Sarah were not just good individuals doing good things in the world, on their own. They had an impact on those around them, planting the seeds for a tradition which continued after their deaths, which, indeed, continues to this day.

Oddly, this lesson is seen through an otherwise insignificant character, the servant of Avraham. The parsha spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with his words and actions in the pursuit of a proper wife for Isaac. Why? Because refracted through this simple servant’s words we are able to see more clearly the legacy of Avraham, able to see which lessons leave the most lasting impression.

Unlike Avraham, who has the restraint and dignity to speak with great sparseness, as in the simple hineni, “I am here,” this servant of Avraham has an unrefined, verbose way of speaking. And it is through this funny talkative voice that we can hear clearly the lessons Avraham leaves behind.

The servant’s words highlight two such lessons, faith in God and hesed, acts of loving-kindness. Like Avraham, this servant believes and trusts in God, and thinks of himself as part of a God-driven mission to find a proper wife for Isaac. Perhaps he takes the lesson simplistically to an extreme, making a deal with God to help him find the right wife for Isaac. But underlying this simplicity is the basic understanding that God controls all events, and he should put his trust in God. He bows low multiple times in thanks to God for helping him on his quest. And, like Avraham, he rushes around with great eagerness to fulfill his part in the divine plan.

Second, the servant has learned from Avraham and Sarah the great value of extending oneself in care for others, whether through hospitality or through beseeching God to show compassion on others. The servant chooses the young woman who graciously offers water to him and also to his camels because he has learned from his master that the mark of class is not in a person’s dress or appearance or wealth, but in her acts of loving-kindness toward others.

These two lessons, faith and hesed, are the legacy of Avraham and Sarah. Avraham and Sarah will die this week, but their legacy will live on. Why? Because they have not been lone individuals seeking good in the world, but have tried to create a community of people doing so, tried to influence others. One noticeable difference between Avraham’s and Lot’s hospitality last week is that Avraham gets other members of his household to participate as well, whereas Lot goes it alone. Going it alone is not the Torah’s way, not a way to create a tradition, a legacy, to build a people. Avraham’s servant’s actions are testament to the wide influence Avraham had on others. Though Avraham dies, his influence lives on.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Parashat Vayera: On Visitors and Hosts

Avraham’s hospitality is legendary. If you want to know how to do the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim, learn from Avraham. He runs with eagerness and excitement toward three passers-by. He asks them to stay in a way that makes it seem like they are doing him a favor, and he (and his family) cook them an elaborate meal, much more than he had even promised. He then stands at attention, serving them, while they sit and enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start there. The parsha doesn’t start with Avraham and his hospitality. It starts with God. Vayera elav hashem. “And God appeared to him.”

Why does it start with this divine appearance? Because Avraham learned his kindness toward others from his relationship with God. God, too, was involved in a mitzvah that day, according to the midrash. Through His appearance to Avraham that day, God was doing bikur holim, visiting the sick, because Avraham was recovering from his circumcision (an event that happened in the immediately preceding verses, at the end of last week’s parsha).

So God was visiting the sick and Avraham was welcoming guests! How beautiful. The two mitzvot, the two good deeds, are mirror images of one another. In one it is the act of visiting which is the good deed, and in the other, it is the act of receiving visitors that is the good deed. How could both receiving visitors and being a visitor be acts of kindness? They are both acts of kindness when they are done in a way that focuses not on one’s own needs but on the needs of the other, either the needs of the sick other or the needs of the temporarily homeless traveling other. Taken together, the two mitzvot create a circle of care.

Avraham’s hospitality did not exist in a vacuum. It was part of a reciprocal relationship he had developed with God. You visit. I’ll receive guests. The sages say that mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to another. Usually that phrase is understood to refer to a single person’s actions. Once you start doing one good deed, it will lead you yourself to do another. But it is also true that there is a cycle of goodness in the world as a whole, that one person’s good deeds lead to another’s good deeds. Perhaps this explains why Lot could not exist in Sodom as a single person doing the good deed of hospitality -- because good deeds need to be done in a place where they can be returned and reinforced, where care and concern are reciprocated. Avraham and God together began such a cycle of goodness in the world.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Parashat Lekh-Lekha: Avraham's New Perspective

Veheyeh Berachah. “And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2). This is one of the things God promises Avra(ha)m if he takes the journey God commands. What does it mean to be a blessing? A midrash, cited by Rashi, says it refers to the first blessing of the amidah prayer, which ends with Avraham’s name, magen Avraham. Avraham literally became a brachah, a blessing for people to recite.

What does this midrash really mean? A closer look at the nature of Avraham’s journey will shed some light on it.

God commands Avraham to take a journey from his homeland and his father’s house to a land that He, God, will show him. If God was referring merely to a physical journey from point A to point B, surely He would have made those points explicit and said something like: Go from Haran to the land of Canaan.

The way God did state the command makes those physical points unclear. The commentaries in fact argue about whether Avraham’s homeland refers to Haran, where he resided at the time, or Ur Casdim, where he originally came from.

Moreover, why would God command a journey which Avraham was already in the middle of taking in any case? His father had set out with him from Ur Casdim toward the land of Canaan, and stopped at Haran. If God merely wanted Avraham to continue the journey his father had started, what would be so special or difficult about this command?

There is something more to God’s command than a physical journey. God is also commanding a spiritual journey, a movement not just from point A to point B, but also from perspective A to perspective B, from the culture and perspective of his father’s home to the culture and perspective of God. “To the land that I will show you” (12:1). Come, take the same journey your father suggested, but take it with a different set of eyes. Come to the land as I will show it to you. See it through My eyes, and not through the eyes of your family.

Lot, Avraham’s nephew, represents the perspective of Avraham’s family. When Lot is choosing where to reside within the land, he is said to “lift up his eyes and look” over the Jordan plain and see its richness and fertility. He moves into Sodom, one of the plain’s wealthy cities. Does he give a thought to the evil character of the people living there? Or to the longevity of the place, a place embroiled in years of conflict with some neighboring states? No. Lot sees wealth and follows it. Laban, Avraham’s grand-nephew, whom we will meet in a few parshiyot, is similarly characterized as being obsessed with wealth, greeting each newcomer with an eye on their jewels. Apparently, the Torah considers this greed to be a family trait.

So it is this greed, this exclusive focus on physical wealth, which Avraham is commanded to leave behind, to separate from. Indeed, the Torah makes a point of saying that it is “after Lot parted from him” (13:14), that God first spoke at length to Avraham about the land, saying that Avraham, too, should raise his eyes and see the land. Here what Avraham is to behold is not wealth, but eternity. Looking through God’s eyes, as God “shows him” the land, what Avraham sees is that it is a land that will belong to his offspring ad olam, “forever” (13:15). Lot barely lasts a few verses in the city of Sodom before he is removed as part of the war between the 4 and the 5 kings. He will be restored, but only to be removed once again when God destroys Sodom. Lot’s focus on wealth leads to transience, while Avraham’s divine perspective leads to eternity.

(Not that physical prosperity isn’t a value, too. Part of Avraham’s blessing involves the accumulation of a certain amount of wealth. But that is only part of his blessing, a blessing of both physical and spiritual dimensions.)

God offers Avraham an alternative to the physical culture he grew up in. His father no doubt was planning a trip to the land of Canaan for economic reasons. Avraham travels as part of a divinely inspired spiritual journey. At each new physical place, he stops to call out to God and build an altar, making the purpose of his journey clear. God repeatedly asks him to look at things, at the stars in the sky and the sand of the earth, and each time, God is offering him a chance to see things through His divine eyes. We humans have such a small perspective; we think in terms of today and perhaps tomorrow, ourselves, and maybe our children. God lets Avraham see things through the divine perspective of eternity, ad olam. Avraham’s children will not be like the stars of the sky for many, many years, but through God’s eyes, Avraham understands his place in the divine plan of history. During the covenant of the pieces, God shows Avraham the distant future, how his offspring will be enslaved for 400 years. In the words of my father about this text, “400 years! What a long range perspective!” The adoption of such a divine perspective is exactly the goal God mapped out for Avraham at the start, the arrival at a land “which I will show you.”

Veheyeh berachah. Avraham did become a blessing, the first of the 19 blessings said today as part of every Jew’s daily prayer. Such an achievement is true continuity, true eternity. Lot and Sodom don’t live on. But Avraham does, through us. He was blessed to have become eternal in this way, and he serves as a blessing for others by beginning for us a special relationship with the eternal God, by paving the way for our own spiritual journeys toward a more divine perspective on life.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Parashat Noah: From Noah to Avraham

Noah is like a small child, and Avraham like a grown one, says the midrash Breishit Rabbah. For Noah is said to “walk with God” (Genesis 6:9), holding God’s hand for assistance, while Avraham is said to be strong and independent enough to “walk before God” (17:1) to have the initiative to help God forge the path ahead.

Noah is nothing if not passive. His name means “rest.” He has no voice; God speaks to him but, unlike Avraham, who argues with God, Noah never answers back. God tells him how to build the ark, and Noah builds it exactly that way. The Zohar compares Noah to Shabbat; like Shabbat he does not take an active part in the world, but simply exists, floating his passive way into survival.

For now, this is what God is looking for. God is looking for someone who will not act like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but who will simply obey, who will be tamim, blameless or blemishless, pure and obedient.

God is not yet looking for a true partner in humanity. The flood is a purely divine act. The waters of heaven overwhelm the earth, as God’s power overwhelms all living things. All control lies solely in God’s hands. And so, when God offers the rainbow covenant after the flood, it is not the reciprocal covenant of Sinai where humans play a role, but a purely one-sided covenant, a promise on God’s part not to harm the world in this extreme way ever again.

At the same time, this promise ushers in a new mode of world governance. From here on in, God will restrain Himself; He will never again take complete control of the earth. From now on, humans must become partners with God in running the world. Indeed, immediately after the flood, God commands that humans be responsible for judging and executing murderers. God will continue to be partially responsible for the earth, but from now on, humans must play a role as well, a role in preventing and judging the kind of violence and lawlessness that led to the flood in the first place.

The next step, next week, is Avraham. God’s first command to Avraham is not to be shut in to an ark for protection from the world, but rather to travel the world and influence it, to bring blessing and justice wherever he goes. No wonder the midrash suggests that Avraham was busy making converts in Haran. His job is to be God’s partner on earth. God decides to consult with him over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah for precisely this reason (Gen 18); the role of Avraham and his progeny is to bring justice to the world, to help people begin the process of self-governance. This job requires that Avraham have what Noah lacked, a sense of independence and initiative.

But Avraham’s personality isn’t an entirely new one. The strength of Avraham is that he combines this independent streak with Noah-like obedience. He can argue with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, but he can also passively obey, as he does in heeding God’s initial call to leave his home and His later call to sacrifice his son.

God says to Avraham: “Walk before Me and be tamim, blameless” (Gen 17:1). That is Avraham’s challenge (and our own). He must on the one hand, be like Noah, pure and blameless and obedient, and on the other hand, be someone who walks not with God but before Him, forging God’s path in the world with initiative and independence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Parashat Breishit:Creation and the Individual

Bishvili nivra ha’olam. “The world was created for me.” That is how the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) says each individual should feel about herself based on the creation story. When a single human is killed, it is as if the whole world is killed, because the world started from one single person. Each person therefore has infinite value; each person contains the whole world; and each person has a divine spark, having been created b’tzelem elokim, “in the image of God.”

Now this notion can and should lead to great pride. Indeed, some hasidic masters taught that pride was actually a key ingredient for serving God. One can only be active and creative in the world if one believes that one has an essential, unique contribution to make, if one believes in one’s own infinite incomparable value. Self-confidence may be more important than any other attribute in the success of a person.

But pride isn’t the end of the story. What does it really mean to have been made in God’s image? If it means that each of us is great, how are we to interact with one another? After all, there is only one God above ruling over the world, but there are many of us little gods on earth. If we are like God, are we meant to rule over one another?

No. That is why God uses the plural when it comes time to create human beings. Na’aseh adam betzalmeinu. “Let us make man in our image.” Rashi says this plural verb teaches us about God’s humility, that He thought it necessary to seek permission and include the angels in His decision. And, says Rashi, it also teaches us about how we are to act toward one another, not haughtily assuming we can do it all ourselves, but humbly seeking each other’s advice and help, working together as a team, like God did.

How apt of Rashi to read these words, “Let us make man in our image” in this way! At the very moment when humans are being declared to be essentially like God – having been created in His image -- God is showing them what He is like, teaching them how to act like God. How does one act like God? Not by being a ruler. On the contrary, by being humble. By sharing responsibility, by working together, by generally seeking opportunities to act not as an “I” but as a “we.”

It helps to live with both these thoughts in mind at the same time. I am great and god-like, equivalent to the whole world, and capable of tremendous deeds, but I am also humble and limited; I need others to be complete. As God comments in the second chapter of the creation story, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Some midrashim suggest that male and female were initially created as one human and torn apart. We therefore seek each other and need each other like pieces of a puzzle.

With both these thoughts in our heads, we are on the one hand encouraged to take an active part in the world, and on the other hand, freed from the full weight of its responsibility. As Pirkei Avot says, “The work is not yours to finish, but neither are you free from abstaining from it” (2:16). Each individual is called upon not to do the whole job, but to play his or her unique part. We should be eager to act, but not anxious. We should feel at the very same moment that what we do matters, but also that our individual contribution is insufficient.

The world was created for me alone, but it was also created for all of us together.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sukkot: On Joy

The Kotzker rebbe is reported to have said that one of the three things we should learn from a child is how to be happy.

Sukkot would be a good time to learn. For Sukkot is called zeman simkhatenu, “the time of our joy.” The Torah does not just say to rejoice on Sukkot, as on other holidays, but Vehayita akh sameakh. “And you shall be only joyful.” (Deut 16:15).

What can children and Sukkot teach us about the nature of simchah, joy? Three things. First, children are happy partly because everything is new to them. They enjoy the world in a way we can’t anymore with our bored, jaded eyes; they are seeing and experiencing everything for the first time, and it is a great love affair. No wonder they don’t want to go to sleep!

We are too old to enjoy the world in this fresh, excited way. But the fall holiday season gives us an opportunity to experience our own version of that kind of joy. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are intensely aware of our mortality. God is sealing all of our fates; we could die or we could live. Maimonides says that, in order to facilitate repentance, it is proper during this time to consider each day to be your very last. Going through the High Holidays is like surviving an intense hospital experience or a serious illness. It makes you aware of how lucky you are to be alive and well. And it is this knowledge that leads to a kind of joy, the joy of appreciating life’s preciousness, of living it to its fullest. For children the joy comes from the perspective of a first day of life, but for us, it is the specter of the last day which can make us enjoy life to its fullest.

Sukkot, coming on the heels of these other holidays, only further emphasizes this sense of our vulnerability and mortality. We leave our permanent homes and live outside, exposed to the elements, in a flimsy temporary shed which, by design, must have a faulty roof! The sukkah is meant to make us feel how very vulnerable and temporary we are in this world. And that feeling, oddly enough, leads to joy. It leads to joy because there is no other choice; if we are not joyful today, we may miss our opportunity. Life is too short, and we are too frail, not to enjoy every second of life granted to us. Like children, we jump fully and joyfully into the moment.

Children teach us other things about happiness too. Children know that true happiness is only experienced in relationship. From a young age, a baby will coo and laugh at an interactive grown-up but not at an object. Children want toys, but even more than toys what makes them happy are friends. A boring day off from school turns into a party when a playmate appears.

Relationships are the true source of joy, according to the Torah, too. What is considered the ultimate sound of joy, kol sason vekol simchah? The sound of a bride and groom rejoicing, kol hatan vekol kalah. Sukkot is a time for rejoicing among people, a time for inviting guests, the traditional ushpizin, and for enjoying each other in the intimate space of the sukkah after the repairing of relationships during the High Holidays.

Sukkot also celebrates another relationship. Our relationship with God. Through the High Holidays, we have focused on that relationship and worked to repair it. Now we are ready to enter the huppah, the wedding canopy, our sukkah, and rejoice like the hatan and kalah, the bride and groom, celebrating our good fortune in having achieved such intimacy with God.

Our rejoicing on Sukkot is like the joy of children in a third way as well. Children are happy because they are dependent. They know where their next meal is coming from, the grown up in charge. They are not responsible for themselves, so they don’t worry, either about the past or the future, and, free of worry, they relax and laugh and enjoy life.

On Sukkot, we are invited to do the same thing. We don’t permanently give up responsibility. We spent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur worrying over our past actions and their consequences and planning our future better actions. But that worry time is over now. What is left is only our sense of dependence on God. We no longer say selakh na, “Please forgive,” but hosha na, “Please save us.” Save us; we are dependent on You. The sukkah, with its negligable roof, is not just a symbol of our vulnerability, but also a symbol of God’s protection, and of our joyful reliance on that protection. God is said to spread out His sukkat shalom, His sukkah of peace over us, giving us a sense of security and calm. As Psalm 27, recited daily this time of year, says: “He will shelter me in His sukkah on an evil day.” One tradition suggests that the sukkot God provided for the Israelites in the desert were actually made of God’s clouds of glory. Sitting in the sukkah under God’s sky instead of our permanent slate roofs, we let go for a moment of our sense of responsibility and control. We let God be in charge, God protect us. And it is then that we are able to experience the joy of children, the carefree joy of a child who knows that all will be taken care of.

Such is the joy of Sukkot, a joy borne not out of our brick homes and all their possessions but out of our experience of vulnerability, relationship and dependence. Ashrei yoshvei veitekha. Happy are those who dwell in Your house.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Parashat Ha'azinu/Yom Kippur: On Empathy

When a child is upset about something, say, a broken toy, how should we respond? According to many child psychology experts, we should not rush to fix the situation, or argue with our children about why they shouldn’t be upset. Instead, we should be with them emotionally, show that we understand their feelings: “That was your favorite toy, and you wanted to bring it to school tomorrow and now you can’t. You must be disappointed.” Once they feel heard and understood, they can solve the problem themselves. Most of the time, what children (and other humans) really want is a sympathetic ear.

God is our model for such a sympathetic ear. We call Him shome’a tefillah, “The One who Hears or Listens to Prayer.” Over Rosh Hashanah, when we called out to Him with our shofars, the emphasis was not on how God fixes our problems, but on how He listens to our broken cries. Mevin uma’azin, mabit umakshiv. “He understands and listens, sees and pays attention.” Throughout this season, we say again and again, shema koleinu, “Listen to our voices.” What we want is for God to hear us.

This week’s parsha begins with its own call to hearing -- Ha’azinu. The root of the word is ozen, “ear.” It is a call for heaven and earth to hear and bear witness to Moshe’s covenantal song, but it rings out during this season also as a call for us all to be, like God, attentive listeners, to open up our ears and hear each other.

God’s capacity as a listener extends so far that it turns into a kind of super-empathy. The tradition says that when the people of Israel went into exile, God went with them. Bekhol tzaratam lo tzar. “In all their troubles He [God] is troubled” (Isaiah 63:9). In Egypt, God “heard their moaning” (Exodus 2:24) and was with them in their distress; the midrash suggests that God chose to appear to Moshe as a burning bush full of thorns to show that, like the enslaved Israelites, He, too, was in pain. In the Yosef story, the Torah tells us in one verse that Yosef was taken into prison, and in the next, “The Lord was with Yosef” (Gen 39:21). As Psalm 91 puts it, Imo anokhi betzarah. “I [God] am with him in distress.”

We are made in God’s image, and are meant to imitate His ways, to strive toward this type of empathy. Perhaps that is what we are doing when we pray for the sick. People struggle with the question of God’s response to such prayers, but perhaps God’s response is beside the point. The point is how the prayer effects the one who is praying, the pray-er. After all, to daven, to pray, is lehitpallel, a reflexive form, an activity that has an impact on the actor. What is that impact? When we pray for the sick in our communities, we are doing two things. On the one hand, we are finding comfort in the sympathetic ear of God, the ultimate listener. On the other hand, we are turning ourselves into little ears of God, reminding ourselves of the pain and suffering being endured by others, teaching ourselves to be with others in their distress just as God is.

I remember as a child praying on Yom Kippur in a small shul and feeling the weight of everyone’s personal pain and woes filling the room. Each of us little humans with our own broken cries comes together on Yom Kippur to voice those cries to a listening, empathetic Ear. We don’t solve each others’ problems on that day, but we are, like God, with each other in distress. And perhaps that is the deepest kind of teshuva (repentance) of all. Gmar hatimah tovah.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rosh Hashanah: On Fear

My children are scared of the dark. The truth is, I am a little scared myself. It is at night in the dark that my worst fears emerge – another Holocaust, thieves attacking in the night, child abduction, wrongful imprisonment, torture, war, and generally, crazy evil people doing unspeakably horrible things with no one to stop them.

Fear is a major theme of Rosh Hashanah. But it is a different kind of fear, and I wonder whether it can help us manage these other fears. The fear of Rosh Hashanah is the fear, not of humans, but of God. On these days, we proclaim God eternal King in contrast to human authorities. We stand before Him like “broken shards,” awaiting judgment, with hil and re’adah, “fear and trembling.” On every day of the year we say the prayer Aleinu. But only on these days do we bow fully to the ground, showing our sense of awe before God. And we pray, in each and every one of the amidah prayers of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Uvekhen ten pahdekha, “And so, O God, please place Your fear on all Your creations.” We actually pray for fear!

What is it about this kind of fear, this fear of God, that is so desirable? First, it makes us feel small. Not small and insecure. Small and calm, comfortable in the knowledge of our tiny place in the universe. We are children to God, our eyes teluyot, dependent on Him for survival. Knowing that He is a good parent, we can relax into His awesomeness; my 5-year-old likes to occasionally pretend she is a baby in order to be reminded of the comfort of just such entire dependence on another. Those other fears of wild and dangerous people are nothing if we are wrapped in this kind of an all-encompassing secure relationship: “Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I fear no harm for You are with me” (Ps 23).

Our smallness in contrast to God’s greatness has another implication. It makes us humble with respect to others and opens us up to each other and to God in new ways. Even the greatest among us is nothing with respect to the awesome King God, and so we need each other, we reach for each other, we open ourselves to each others’ gifts. One of the three ways of turning around bad decrees during this time of year is to do tzedakah, to help others in some charitable way. The shape of the shofar symbolizes this openness; it begins with a small opening toward the individual and ends with a larger one, opening out toward the world. When we fear God, we band together to help each other, but when we fear human beings, we close ourselves off. We try to protect ourselves by running away, escaping, hiding. One of my most consistent nightmares as a child was of hiding in a closet while being pursued by Nazis. Fear of humans shuts us in, but fear of God opens us up.

We are small when we fear God, but we are also very large. We are large because God has given us control over own destinies through the ability to do teshuva, repentance. Unlike an unpredictable cruel human despot who metes out evil decrees randomly, God has made it clear that His judgment depends on our actions; if we change those actions, any harm in His decree will be rescinded. And so, our fear of God’s judgment does not oppress us or cow us but empowers us, compelling us to act differently, more rightly in the world. Fear of humans, by contrast, paralyzes us, shuts us down. When we think of all the atrocities committed by human beings, our hearts are filled with such doom and heaviness that life feels pointless, and we wonder whether there is any purpose in taking an active part in it at all. Fear of humans leads to pessimism and immobilization, fear of God to optimism and action. The shofar’s call is a clarion call to action, not a siren warning us to hide from an approaching army. That the sound of that call to action is frightening and awesome is no accident. It is by reminding us of God’s awesomeness, as at the terrifying experience of Sinai, that the shofar blasts do their job of waking us up to the large role we must play in this world. The shofar should at once make us feel small and large, awed and empowered, humbled and called.

The shofar is also associated with light. We recite these words from Psalm 89 after the first set of shofar blasts: “Fortunate is the people who knows the shofar blast; O Lord, in the light of Your countenance will they walk.” With each new set of shofar blasts we pray that God should bring out our judgment ka’or, “as light.” Why light? What does light have to do with the shofar? Light is a symbol for the great clarity brought by God’s judgment, but it is also a symbol of God’s power to conquer evil and darkness, a symbol of the kind of light-filled optimistic view of the world brought about by a world-view in which fear of God replaces fear of humans. My children fear darkness. In a way, all fear of human evil is a fear of darkness in the world. What we are doing with the shofar, then, is blasting away that darkness and replacing it with light, reminding ourselves that the awe of God speaks louder than the fear of humans, reminding ourselves whom to fear and whom not to fear. As we say at the end or prayers throughout this season, “The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?” (Ps 27).

May we only fear God.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh: On the Concept of "Today"

We often feel today is just preparation for tomorrow. I am writing this on the day before school starts. Today we buy supplies and go to orientations. Today is light and fleeting. We rush through it to get to the all-significant tomorrow.

Not so the Torah’s “today.” The Torah’s today is weighty and significant. In Hebrew, the word for today, hayom, means “the day.” It is THE ultimate day.

This week’s double parsha begins with the statement Atem nitzavim hayom. “Today you stand.” Today, the parsha tells us, the people all stand in God’s presence to take on His covenant and become His people.

A midrash on the word hayom elsewhere in Deuteronomy (the word is a constant mantra) tells us that “today” describes the proper attitude one should take toward God and His commandments. One should always feel as if they were newly given “today.” Borrowing from Buddhist terminology, we might say one should be present and mindful in the fulfillment of commandments, be fully alive to the power of that moment, of that hayom. This feeling of presence is also the meaning of the shehecheyanu prayer; we thank God for keeping us alive to see this day; we thank God for the present moment.

But it is not exactly right to say that in the Torah’s view hayom, the present, is all that matters. Rather, encapsulated in the present, if you live it fully, with an awareness of God, are the past and future as well.

The parsha starts by stating that the people are all standing today before God but soon makes it clear that the covenant’s audience is larger than those present only on that “today”: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us today before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today” (29:13-14). Rashi says, “those who are not with us” refers to future generations. I wonder whether it couldn’t also refer to past generations. The verse before it refers to the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. My husband’s family has a practice of beginning significant family meals by mentioning “those who are no longer with us.” The practice actually creates a moment in which “those who are no longer with us” are with us. The Torah’s hayom seems similar. It is a sacred “today” in which the past, present and future are somehow merged.

To understand this concept of time, we need to look not just at the word hayom, but also at the word before it, nitzavim, “standing.” The word implies a kind of fixed standing in one place, like a matzevah, a statue. In order to feel the thickness of the past, present and future in today’s moment, we need to do one important thing – stand still, very still, rooted to the ground. Not to lunge forward in our restless pursuit of the future, but to stand absolutely still. To live, for a moment, not horizontally, from Day 1 to Day 2, as we normally do, but vertically, at this moment as it was experienced in the past, a year ago, a century ago, a millennium ago, and at this moment as it will be experienced in the future, a year from now, a century from now, and into eternity.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are especially thick hayom days. They are days when we tend to live in this vertical time-space, when we think not so much of tomorrow but of last Rosh Hashanah, of the Rosh Hashanah before so-and-so was born (what a miracle!), of the Rosh Hashanahs my ancestors spent in the shtetl in Poland, and of the future Rosh Hashanahs we hope for ourselves and others.

There is one other element which is significant in this understanding of hayom -- God. The Torah doesn’t just say we are standing still today. It says we are standing still before God. It is God who grants us this escape from the human framework of horizontal time, this peek into the divine vertical vision of eternity, of a present merged with its past and future. The Lord’s name as it is written but not pronounced (it is too sacred and secret to be pronounced) actually contains within it the word for “being” in the past, the present and the future. That is God’s essence. Unlike each of us, He was, He is, and He will be. What we are doing when we stand still for that moment of vertical eternal time is existing in the divine realm.

The fall is a time of great changes. The weather turns. Students everywhere begin their new journeys. Such changes are exciting, but they can also be frightening and dislocating. Rashi says that Moshe told the people to be nitzavim, “standing,” because he wanted to assure them that during this time of transition from his leadership to that of Yehoshua, they would still feel secure and rooted. Our little moments of hayom, of standing still in the thickness of God’s eternal presence, can provide a similar sense of calm amidst the swirl of change and activity in the world around us.

At the end of each of the days’ prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we say a little poem entitled hayom. On this day, we ask God to bless us, to hear us, and to support us. Hayom te’amtzeinu. Today you make us strong -- today, back through the ages; today, stretching forward into eternity. Hayom te’amtzeinu.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Parashat Shoftim: On Lifeguards and Heifer Necks

At Grafton Lakes State Park this week, the lifeguard blew her whistle to stop some bathers from dangerous horseplay. Later, all three lifeguards on duty announced that everyone was to clear the water area so that a search for a missing child could be conducted. (The child was found and okay). These lifeguards were taking their duties very seriously to both police and protect the crowd.

This week’s parsha, Shoftim, meaning “judges,” deals with the various roles played by government leaders: judges, police, priests, and kings. Their authority is laid out clearly – “You must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left” (Deut 17:11), as are certain limitations on their powers – a king may not accumulate too many horses, wives or money. But it is not until the final section of the parsha that I think we see the ultimate purpose of all these leaders – to act as life-guards, to protect and care for the people.

The final section deals with a case called eglah arufah (Deut 21:1-9). The Torah describes a situation in which a halal, a slain body, is found in a field in the no-man’s land between two towns, and the murderer is not known Measurements are to be taken to determine the closest town. This town’s elders and priests must then bring a brand-new heifer, an eglah, and break its neck over a strong flowing river. They wash their hands and make a pronouncement declaring that they were not involved in the murder themselves (“Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.”). They then ask God to atone for the murder.

Rashi cites the Talmud which rightly asks: “Would it occur to anyone that the elders of the court are murderers?” (Sotah 45b). Why are they considered responsible? Why is there a need for atonement, for a ritual like that of Yom Kippur’s sacrificial lamb, sent out to the wilderness to atone for our sins? What is it that these leaders have done wrong, if they have clearly not themselves committed the murder?

Ah, but they are responsible for such things. They are the people’s life-guards, after all. Rashi and the Babylonian Talmud suggest that the leaders are actually declaring that they have not seen the victim and let him go without food or without proper accompaniment on the road. Perhaps it was hunger that led him to be murdered; perhaps he tried to steal someone’s food on the road, and was killed in the process. Others suggest that the leaders are responsible for keeping their local roads safe for travelers. The Palestinian Talmud suggests that the leaders were actually speaking not about the victim, but about the murderer, proclaiming that he had not come before them in judgment and been absolved (Sotah 9, 6, as cited by Nehama Leibowitz). Like the life-guard, these leaders’ duties involve both policing criminals as well as protecting and caring for the innocent.

But how far does this responsibility extend? The duty to care does not end with the city limits, says the Torah, but extends into the barren zone between cities. Indeed, according to the Torah there can be no “no-man’s land.” Every single piece of land must be under some community’s jurisdiction and care. A person should never feel that alone, should never feel so alone that he can be attacked without any witnesses. The sadeh, the “field,” in the Torah is a place where crimes happen; it is “while they were in a field” that Cain killed Abel in the beginning of time (Genesis 4:8), and it is in the “field” that a woman is considered unable to elicit aid when raped (Deut 22:25). The case of the eglah arufah sets a high standard for community leadership; it is the task of a society and its leaders to ensure that no one is excluded, that no one ends up in such a sadeh uncared for and unaccompanied.

When God confronts Cain about his murder of Abel, Cain says. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The eglah arufah teaches that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers, that if we are not careful about being their keepers, then we are almost like their murderers.

The leaders’ recitation over the broken neck of the heifer asks God to absolve the people of Israel “whom You redeemed ” (21.8). Why mention God’s redemption? God is our model for how to care for others. He redeems people from terrible suffering, oppression and murder, and we are called on to do the same. Earlier in the parsha (Deut 18:15-18), Moshe reminds the people that at Sinai, they were so frightened at hearing God’s voice, that they requested a human alternative. God agreed with the people and therefore appointed Moshe and all future prophets to be His representatives on earth. But the idea is not limited to prophets. All leaders, indeed, all people, are God’s representatives on earth, and must model their behavior on His. In the case of the eglah arufah, the leaders ask for forgiveness for not living up to His model, and pray for the strength to be, in the future, more like God the redeemer and life-guard.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Parashat Re'eh: The BIG CHOICE

This week’s parsha begins with one of Deuteronomy’s favorite topics, the BIG CHOICE in life -- the choice between good and bad, between life and death, or, as this week’s parsha puts it, the choice between a life of blessing and a life of curses.

The question of leading a moral life, of choosing good over evil, is a popular one and a universal one. But what makes the Torah’s version of this question special is that it is framed as an issue of relationship, specifically as an issue of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The parsha does not begin with the words: “These are the blessings and these are the curses.” It begins with a statement of relationship: "See this day I give you blessing and curse.” What makes this blessing and curse important is that I give it to you. And how does one earn this blessing or this curse? Again, through the relationship, either by being faithful to the relationship and obeying God’s commands, or by reneging on one’s relational duties and disobeying Him.

Later on in the parsha, by way of introduction to the prohibition against gashing yourself or shaving the front of your head, the Torah says, banim atem lashem elokeikhem, “You are children of the Lord your God” (14:1). The good and the bad, the right and the wrong, are framed as questions of our relationship to God.

The relationship theme is one of classical midrash’s perennial favorites. Midrash Devarim Rabbah on this parsha explains that both the Torah and the human soul are compared to a ner, a light or candle. When the Holy One blessed be He wanted to warn the people to observe the Torah, says the midrash, what did He say to them? Neri beyadekha venerkha beyadi. “Your light is in My hands, and My light is in your hands. If you keep My light [the Torah], then I will keep your light [the human soul].”

How deeply intimate and inextricable is such a relationship! Each of us holds a piece of God in our hands and God holds a piece of each of us in His. We are in an inter-dependent, symbiotic relationship. Imagine two puzzles completed perfectly except for one piece in each puzzle which is interchanged and fit into the opposite puzzle frame. Someone once said to me that being a parent is like having your heart walk around in someone else’s body. Our relationship to God is of that order. We carry a piece of Him, through the Torah, and He carries a piece of us, through our souls.

Nor is it just any piece. It is the light, the ner, the or, the part of us my daughter would call “the shiny, sparkly part.” For her, that is what makes a dress worth wearing. For us, that sparkly part is what makes a life worth living. It is the song and the spirit, the part of us that soars heavenward, that is always seeking, always yearning to be connected to its origins.

But, oh, what responsibility! To be charged with keeping the light, with keeping God’s light, the Torah, alive on earth. And to be told that our own lives, our own lights depend upon this relationship, depend upon our ability to keep God’s light alive. So much rests on us.

But also what an honor, a privilege, and a joy. To play such an important role, not to be tiny in God’s eyes, but to be large, to be “the carriers of His light.”

The midrash says our souls are bound up in the keeping of His Torah -- when, through the Torah, we bring out the light in the world, we are simultaneously feeding our own souls, making their light shine even brighter. The true “blessing” of Deuteronomy’s BIG CHOICE is the shining of that light – God’s and our own.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Parashat Ekev: Food for Thought

What to eat? Let’s see . . . If we eat some tomatoes, we can fulfill our daily nutritional requirement of vitamin C. Add some whole wheat pasta for fiber and iron.

Is that all food is? The sum total of its chemical nutrients, the different components which make up the fuel for our bodies? This reductionist way of thinking about food has been termed “nutritionism” and is assailed by Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food. He argues that food is “no mere thing but a web of relationships,” not merely “fuel” but “a form of communion.” We should approach food with pleasure, gratitude and mystery, he suggests, eat slowly, and with company.

The Torah understood this long ago. In this week’s parsha, Moshe speaks to the people about their experience of eating manna in the desert. He says that God made things difficult for them by making them hungry and feeding them this manna food which was completely unfamiliar to them. The whole point, says Moshe, was to teach them the following simple message: Ki lo al halekhem levado yehkeyeh ha’adam, “Man does not live on bread alone,” but rather, ki al kol motza pi hashem yekheh ha’adam, literally, “Man lives on whatever comes out of God’s mouth” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

At first glance, and taken out of context, the idea seems clear – we need more than food to be fully alive. We also need what comes out of God’s mouth, i.e. Torah. Mouths are both spiritual and physical gateways; they take in food but they also pass on Torah. On one level, then, Moshe is reminding the people that they are more than just base animals looking for fuel, that they also need to nourish their souls.

In its context, though, “whatever comes out of God’s mouth” seems (so most traditional commentators think) to refer to food as well -- to the manna which came from God to feed the people in the desert. The lesson is then not so much about the importance of Torah over food but of the importance of a proper Torah approach to food itself.

Through the experience of manna in the desert, God taught the people something about food in general -- that it should not be viewed solely as lehem, bread, a product of human labor and processing, but should always also be viewed as coming from God. A few verses later, in speaking about the process of acquiring ordinary food in the land of Israel, Moshe warns the people: “Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God” (8:14). Don’t think that you have done it all, that what sustains you in this bread all comes from your own labors.

Manna is a perfect model food because it makes clear, in the most extreme way, that food comes from God. The people played no part in producing it. The Torah emphasizes that manna was strange and unfamiliar to the Israelites. Why? Perhaps to highlight the sense of mystery the Israelites experienced with this food, the sense of wonder at how such an unfamiliar food could still manage to sustain them. Manna, in its strangeness, highlights this sense of wonder, but the truth is that ordinary food should evoke in us the same feeling of mystery: How does it manage to keep us alive? Surely there is something divine and miraculous in the sustenance provided by an ordinary piece of bread.

Manna also makes human dependence on God poignantly clear. In the desert, there was nowhere else to get food other than from God. Perhaps this is why the Torah emphasizes that God made the people hungry; when you are very hungry, as on a fast day, you are made keenly aware of your dependence on God for food.

Manna also made the Israelites aware of their dependence on God for food because only enough was given for each day (except for Erev Shabbat). Any excess decayed overnight. As the Talmud says, “Someone who has food in his basket [for tomorrow] is not like someone who does not have food in his basket” (Yoma 74b). Without the security of having provisions for the future, a person feels scared and dependent. The manna brought up these feelings in an extreme version, but the truth is we are all this dependent. We hide it from ourselves by having baskets full of provisions, by having food with an incredibly long shelf-life on our supermarket shelves, but the truth is, without a constant supply of fresh supplies, even those provisions would eventually run out. As humans, we can’t exist without a constant supply of fresh food.

People should not live on bread alone, but with an awareness that all sustenance comes from God. That is the lesson of the manna. Manna teaches the lessons of dependence and mystery; it teaches us to approach food with the proper sense of respect, gratitude and wonderment, to feel the miracle of each bite.

Judaism is extremely practical, and as always, these are not just ideas in the sky; they have clear practical applications. Indeed, not many verses after this discussion of manna, Moshe turns to speak about what life will be like in the land of Israel, and says, “You shall eat and you shall be satisfied and you shall bless the Lord your God” (8:10). Blessings, brachot, before and after food (the verse speaks specifically about after, but the rabbis added the notion of before as well) are meant to remind us of just these lessons of manna, of our fragile dependence on God for food and of the miracle of its ability to sustain us. Saying a brachah is a kind of antidote to the “fast food” movement Pollan rails against, as one is forced to slow down the process of eating and consider with respect and gratitude one’s daily sustenance.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Post-Tisha b'Av: On Faith and Waiting

“Every place that it says eyn (there is none), it turns out that havah lah (there is one).” Thus says the fourth century Rabbi Levi about the word eyn in Scripture. Things simply cannot remain in the state of eyn, of nothingness, permanently, but must always make their inexorable way toward a positive existence.

These words are cited in the midrash Eichah Rabbah as a form of comfort upon reading the book of Lamentations (Eichah) on the fast of Tisha b’Av. Rabbi Levi offers these examples:

Of both Sarah and Hannah the Torah says eyn, that they had no children. But eventually they do have children, Isaac and Samuel respectively. Their state of eyn, their barrenness, was only temporary.

So, too, with regard to the barrenness of the city of Jerusalem. The book of Eichah says of Jerusalem eyn lah menahem, “She has none to comfort her.” Yet two days after we read of this eyn on Tisha b’Av, we read the first of the seven comforting shabbat haftarahs, “Comfort, oh, comfort My people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1), and a few weeks later, we read, “I, I am He who comforts you!” (Isaiah 51:12).

This statement of Rabbi Levi’s is a strong assertion of optimism, of a sense that things must always turn positive, that all the holes, the negatives, the eyn’s in the world, are only temporary. If we wait long enough, they will turn positive. Why? Because there can be no permanent eyn in the face of a belief in the ultimate havah lah, the existence of God.

It is all a matter of time. If things are awry right now, wait till tomorrow. Tomorrow they will surely be better. The midrash (Pesikta deRav Kahana) points out that this week’s haftarah proclaims its message of comfort in the future tense, “Comfort oh, comfort your people, will say your God,” yomar elokeichem. It is as if the key to all future calamities has already been given in this statement, this statement of a permanently hopeful future. One should always feel that tomorrow God will offer comfort.

If God will bring better things tomorrow, what are we meant to do today? Just sit and wait? Partly, yes. The tradition has a strong emphasis on waiting. When we recite and sing the song of faith, “Ani Ma’amin,” what do we say? “Ani Ma’amin, I believe in full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even if he should tarry, in spite of all that, I shall wait for him, for each day that he should come” (#12 of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith).

Waiting does not sit right with our modern sensibilities. Today we control a lot of elements in our lives and we prize that control. If Sarah and Abraham had lived today, they would not have waited for God to end Sarah’s barrenness. They would have been busy with various infertility treatments. And perhaps rightfully so. We are not meant to sit back and wait when there is something we can do. We are meant to be partners with God in changing this world, in helping ourselves and others.

But honestly, how does all this control, all this activity, make us feel? Anxious. We feel we have so much control that we need to scurry around, turning every rock, doing everything we can possibly do to ensure, to force the right outcome.

Isn’t there a place in all that scurrying for a little bit of waiting, for the acknowledgment that some problems are not solved by our actions, but by God and time doing their work?

Mind you, we are not talking about just any kind of waiting, but about a waiting of hope, of faith, of the Ani Ma’amin kind. Because waiting can be quite painful if not done with some faith. There is the waiting of one who is sure of a negative outcome, a prisoner on death-row, for instance. That is a waiting of despair. And then there is the waiting of one who is unsure of the outcome. That, too, is a difficult kind of waiting. If you really want to be pregnant and aren’t and think you might never be, or if you really want to be married and aren’t and think you might never be, then every passing day of waiting is filled with anxiety and foreboding.

No, the kind of waiting our tradition speaks of is a waiting which infuses the present with hope and light and inner peace. Waiting for Messiah is not really about the future; it’s about how such an anticipated future effects the present, effects how we live right now. My father reports that part of what sustained him and his family through their trials in Siberian labor camps during the Shoah was the Yiddish mantra, Men muz huben bituchen, “One must have faith” -- faith that God will bring a better tomorrow. It is this faith which gave his family energy to face each difficult day, not to despair, but to keep the will to live.

Rabbi Levi’s statement about eyn is more than a statement about the passage of time, about the change over time from negative to positive. It is also a statement about how to live within the moment of eyn. How to infuse those very moments of eyn with hope, even with a sense of havah lah.

It is remarkable that the Jewish people have survived all these thousands of years through endless persecutions and calamities. In the turn from Tisha b’Av to the period of comfort which follows we see a glimpse of the spiritual fortitude which has sustained us. We see a glimpse of the remarkable ability, through faithful waiting, to turn an eyn into a havah lah, a cry of mourning into a song of joy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Parashat Devarim and the Book of Eichah: Two Sides of Loneliness

Social contact is essential for human beings’ survival. Children grow up abnormally when sufficient human contact is not provided, and, a recent New Yorker article reports, prisoners subjected to solitary confinement suffer extreme psychological distress, often with long term psychiatric repercussions. Isolation is one of the worst forms of torture.

It is no wonder, then, that the book of Lamentations (Eichah) – read on the upcoming Fast of Av, to commemorate the destruction of the temples and other Jewish calamities -- begins with a terrible cry of loneliness. Eikhah yashvah badad – “Alas, lonely sits the city!” The city is like a widow, says Jeremiah, lonely and longing for its happy past. Of all the terrible events that befell the Jewish people, its isolation is the first one mentioned, the emblem of tragedy and despair.

Tradition understands the temples’ destructions and the loneliness they engendered to be the just deserts of a cruel society, a society which, according to the Talmud, was known for its sin’at hinam, its baseless hatred.

One famous story tells of a man who made a party and instructed his servant to issue invitations to all his friends, including one man named Kamtza. Now in that same town there was also a man named bar Kamtza, who was the enemy of the party-giver. The servant mistakenly invited the wrong Kamtza, and bar Kamtza, the enemy, appeared at the party. The party-giver angrily demanded that he leave the party, but bar Kamtza, embarrassed, asked if he could stay and pay for his own food and drink. The party-giver cruelly refused, and bar Kamtza even offered to pay for all the food and drink at the party. But the party-giver insisted, and bar Kamtza was forcibly removed. Ultimately bar Kamtza became angry at all the sages at the party who did nothing to help him, and he went and informed against them to the Roman authorities, eventually leading to the destruction of the Temple (Talmud Gitin 55b).

And so it was the infliction of emotional pain and isolation on individuals within the community that ultimately led to the breakdown of the society as a whole, that led to the cry of loneliness and despair of the city itself. God heard the cry of the mistreated, and He made us all feel it. Eikhah yashvah badad. How we have all come to feel the loneliness bar Kamtza felt!

BUT there is an alternative. And the tradition offers it to us at the very same moment as it presents this painful glimpse into a cruel society. The alternative is presented through another Eikhah cry of loneliness. It is the cry of Moshe in this week’s parsha, parashat Devarim, a parsha which is always read on the shabbat before Tisha b’Av.

Moshe’s Eikhah cry is not the cry of despair we saw in Lamentations, but a cry for help, a call to solve the problem of aloneness. Eikhah esa levadi, “How can I carry this burden alone” (Dt 1:12), he asks. How can I handle the burdens of judging this large people on my own? He feels overwhelmed and isolated by the responsibility. But here there is a solution – other people can help him. Moshe solves his problem by getting others involved, by not going it alone. That is the key to loneliness. Other people must be willing and able to help. In Moshe’s case, a whole network of judges was arranged to share his burdens, to be his co-administrators, his helpmates.

At the dawn of society, in the Garden of Eden, Adam, too, experienced loneliness, and God recognized it as such. Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado. It is not good for man to be alone. What did God do? He understood that there is only one solution for such, the most basic of human problems. He made for Adam another person, a woman, to be with. Why? As an ezer kenegdo, as someone who could help him. That is exactly what the people at the party did not do for bar Kamtza. They did not help him in his isolation. And that is exactly what the city of Jerusalem did not have. Again and again, Jeremiah tells us eyn lah menahem, “She has none to comfort her.” Ahhh. That would have been the solution. Someone to be with, to help her and to comfort her.

The two and a half tribes at the end of this week’s parsha understand this solution. They act as help-mates to their fellow tribes. These two and a half tribes have already received their land holdings, on the eastern side of the Jordan river, in land that was already conquered by the Israelites. Nonetheless, these two and a half tribes agree to stand at the head of the army that will conquer the land on the other side of the Jordan, land that will be given to the other tribes. Here is an act of supreme social solidarity. These tribes do not abandon their brothers to fight on their own, but stand with them, as help-mates, as partners. There is no loneliness here.

We are all fundamentally alone. The question is how we approach that problem. Do we say to others: “You are an island. You can handle it all on your own.” Or do we serve, each of us, as help-mates for each other, creating a society where there need be no one truly alone? Our communal commemoration of Tisha b’Av, the experience of fasting and mourning together as a community, gives us a taste of just such social solidarity even as we commemorate its absence in other generations.

The rabbis understand that it is in our power to bring about either our own despair or own uplifting. They make the connection between the two cries of Eikhah, that of Moshe and that of Jeremiah in Lamentations, and they say: “If you are worthy, you will call out the call of Moshe’s Eikhah, and if you are not worthy, you will call out the call of Jeremiah’s Eikhah.”

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel says:
"All my days I grew up among scholars, but I have not found anything as good for a person as silence."
(Mishnah Avot 1:17)

In keeping with this dictum, there will be no blog post this week or next week. I will be on vacation. Stay tuned for a new blog post the following week (the week of parashat Devarim).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Parashat Hukat: In God We Trust

This Shabbat is July 4th. One of the most remarkable things about the country born on that day is the way in which the mantle of leadership is passed peacefully from one president to the next. George Washington set this example when he wisely refused to run for a third term of office. He made it clear that there would be no kings in America, that the country would not be dependent on any one individual’s charismatic leadership but would endure on the foundations of its values and faith.

In this week’s parsha, we meet up with the Israelites in the fortieth year of their desert wanderings, at the end of their first leaders’ terms of office. How will the people survive the death of their leaders? Can the institution of benei yisrael as a people of God exist without Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, their leaders?

It all starts with the death of the prophetess Miriam, Moshe’s sister. Her death, told in a mere half-verse (20:1), is followed immediately by the statement: “And there was no water for the community.” The midrash connects the two events, saying that a well had accompanied the people while Miriam was alive, but dried up at her death. The lack of water leads the people to complain to Moshe. Moshe, after consulting with God, brings forth water from a rock for the people, but God is angry at the way Moshe and Aharon handled the situation and tells them they will not be allowed to lead the people into the land of Israel. The end of their leadership is in sight. Aharon dies at the end of the chapter.

The exact nature of Moshe’s sin has been the source of great discussion over the centuries. I will follow the lead of Nachmanides, Jacob Milgrom, and my father, all of whom have slightly different versions of the same idea. The idea is that Moshe, as God says in His accusation, did not “sanctify” God “in the eyes of the Israelite people” (20:12). Moshe did not make it clear that the water was from God. He and Aharon said, “ Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” They did not say: “God will bring forth water for you from this rock.”

Moshe didn’t just miss an opportunity to sanctify God. He missed what it was the people actually needed in this situation. Miriam had just died, and the people were looking around and feeling frightened. One leader gone, and already the situation had deteriorated -- there was no water to drink. What would it be like when eventually all of their leaders died? This was a new generation, born in the desert into the strong arms of the leaders who had taken this desert generation’s parents out of Egypt. The parents had gradually died over the course of the 40 years in the desert, and now the leaders were dying too. What was going to happen to this new generation? Who would provide for them now? Would there, could there, be water without Miriam?

Moshe didn’t help the situation with his response. He said: Yes, there is water without Miriam. There is water from me and from Aharon. We can bring you water. See? If I lift up my arm with this stick and hit the rock very forcefully not just once, but twice, you’ll see the water we can produce.

Oh, but the people needed more than that. They needed to know that water and all other life-sustaining goods come from God, that even if Miriam, Moshe and Aharon all die, God will not die, and it is God who provides. They needed to know that life would continue, that their fledgling nation could survive the death of its first leaders. Moshe, of course, knew all this himself, but he ddin't say so, and that was his failure, a failure of pedagogy.

Moshe hit the rock, but the people needed to know that their survival was not dependent on the physical arm of a mortal man. God had actually commanded Moshe not to hit the rock, but to speak to it. Maybe part of the problem here was that the action was not well-suited to the people’s emotional needs. Hitting is a physical, mortal act; speech is eternal; it is our connection to the divine. Speech was what the people needed, to assure them that their survival was not dependent on a mortal like Moshe, but rather linked to God, to the One Who Spoke and the World Was Created.

The people do survive the death of Moshe. Even though Moshe does not make it clear that the water is from God, the people understand. Even in their complaint, they have already begun to think of themselves as a kehal hashem, “a congregation of the Lord” (20:3). They understand that their future may not be with Moshe, but it will always be with God. For the first time, in one of the stories that follow this one, the people cry out straight to God, without Moshe’s intercession: “Then Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If You deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.’ The Lord heeded Israel’s plea and delivered up the Canaanites” (21:2-3). Wow! No Moshe, no Aharon, no Miriam. Just the people and God. This is the first inkling that the people are secure enough in their relationship to God to withstand the loss of its leaders.

As the Psalm verse reads, “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save. His breath departs; he returns to the dust; on that day his plans come to nothing” (Ps 146:4).

The United States did not collapse when George Washington left office; the institutions built by the country’s founders were not dependent on any one individual. We Jews are testimony to the fact that the people of Israel also survived the loss of its first great leader, Moshe. For us, it is a function of having put our trust, not in mere mortals, but in the eternal God and His enduring Torah.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Parashat Korah: On Envy

If only Korah had gone to our local synagogue (CBAJ) preschool with my kids. When the children are given differently colored pieces of paper or differently flavored popsicles, their teachers tell them: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

Korah never learned that lesson. He did get upset. He got upset about what other people, Moshe and Aharon, got -- namely leadership and priesthood -- and was not content with what he himself got -- the job of Levite.

This week’s parsha tells the story of Korah’s complaints and of the rebellion he tried to incite against Moshe and Aharon. He and a large group of followers, including two men named Datan and Aviram, gathered together against Moshe and Aharon, saying: “Rav lachem. You have too much. Everyone in the congregation is holy. Why are you two lording it over everyone else?”

The complaint sounds familiar. It is like the complaint of any kid who sees her sibling get a larger slice of cake: “Hey! No fair! Why does so-and-so get such a big piece and not me?” Korah was in fact a first cousin to Moshe, and an older one at that. Clearly, he thought the divine division of family goodies unfair.

The Torah holds up this example of envy as a reflection of the envy we all feel, whether in family relationships or in the world at large. And it is through this story that we can see what is wrong with such feelings.

First, envy is a form of greed. It is no accident the parsha begins with the word vayikah, “He [Korah] took.” The commentaries go wild trying to explain what it was he took, for in the Torah the word is without an object. Maybe that is the point. That one word tells us all we need to know about this Korah character – he was a taking kind of person. He was not content with his lot, but wanted a piece of the lot assigned to others.

Second, the Torah makes it clear that such a feeling of envy is in fact a rebellion against God. As Moshe says, “Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together” (16:11). In the desert, the roles of the high priest and the head-leader and the Levite all clearly originate from God, so that to complain of one’s role is to complain against God. The same is true in our own lives, though it is sometimes harder to see. God has granted each of us certain talents, strengths and challenges in life, so that to envy another’s lot is indeed a kind of rebellion against the God who made us the way we are. As an on-line Bnei Akiva article on jealousy puts it, “The life that God has given you is the life that you were meant to live.”

Third, the Torah shows us, quite graphically, the natural consequences of these feelings of envy and greed. What happens to Korah and his cronies when they try to raise themselves up by putting down Moshe and Aharon? Instead of going up, they go down, down under the ground: “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up . . . They went down alive into Sheol” (16:32). The midrash points out that Datan and Aviram predict their own downfall when they say lo na’aleh, “We will not go up.” What they mean is: “We will not go up to talk to you, Moshe,” but through these words they predict their end -- they will indeed not go up, but down. Their attempt at self-aggrandizement has led to self-destruction. They have been literally swallowed by their own greed.

Emotionally, that is the way it works with people. Envy is not healthy. It lowers us, debases us. Its drive is an essentially negative one, the tearing down of another’s good fortune, and this negative tenor seeps into our souls. King Saul is a classic example of this process. One day Saul hears the people singing higher praises of David than of himself, and develops a ferocious jealousy of David. “The next day,” the verse tells us, "an evil spirit of God gripped Saul and he began to rave in the house” (I Samuel 18:10). Jealousy causes the unraveling of Saul’s spirit.

What is the alternative? How can we stop these natural feelings of envy, the natural desire to get a larger slice of cake than our siblings? The answer is in Moshe’s response to Korah.. Korah looked at Moshe and Aharon and said: Rav lachem. “You have much.” Moshe says back to Korah: Rav lachem benei levi -- “It is you sons of Levi who have much.” Instead of thinking about the greatness others have, says Moshe, think about the greatness you have been given. PBSkids has the following advice: “There is one really helpful way to beat the jealousy monster: Instead of concentrating on what you DON’T have or who you AREN’T, concentrate on what you DO have or who you ARE.”

As parents, we do everything we can to avoid provoking jealous feelings among our children, but we can’t make things perfectly equal and even, and we probably shouldn’t even try. Life is not always fair. Moshe and Korah were indeed given unequal portions, as are our children. The goal is to be able to face those differences and those inequalities with a comfortable, content sense of self, a self that focuses on one’s own gifts of rav, “much,” rather than desiring the rav-ness of others.

But the goal is not just to ignore another’s good fortune, but to be able to celebrate it. As Nehama Leibowitz points out, Korah was wrong when he said: Kol ha’am kulam kedoshim. “The whole nation, every one of them is holy [plural].” We are not each of us holy on our own, as individuals. We are an am kadosh, “a holy nation.” It is only together, as a group, that we become truly great, truly holy. Once we understand how inextricably linked we are, it becomes easy to celebrate others’ successes; their greatness makes us all great.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Parashat Shelah I: Of Grasshoppers and Giants

Riddle: What do Bob the Builder and Calev ben Yefuneh from this week’s parsha have in common? Answer: They both say: “Can we do it? Yes, we can!”

This week’s parsha, Shelah, tells the story of the 12 meraglim -- scouts who were sent by Moshe from the desert to survey the land of Israel in preparation for the people’s entrance. 10 of the scouts came back saying, “We can’t do it. We won’t be able to conquer the land.” They reported that the land does indeed produce incredible fruit (one bunch of grapes can be carried only by two people using a pole!), but that efes, “no matter” (Numbers 13:28), because the land’s inhabitants are giants, and their cities are well-fortified. The other 2 scouts, Calev and Yehoshua, were steadfast and confident, arguing that since God is with the people of Israel, they will succeed in conquering this great land. They said: “We can surely do it,” which in Hebrew sounds like a double can-do -- yakhol nukhal lah (13:30).

Why were Calev and Yehoshua so confident and positive, while the other 10 spies so hopeless and negative? What made Calev and Yehoshua see the challenge of the conquest of the land as an exciting opportunity to be seized, and the 10 spies see it as an impossible task, doomed to failure?

The 10 spies were intimidated by the largeness of everything they saw – the fruit, the fortifications, and most especially the people. All that largeness made them feel small, like “grasshoppers" (13:33), they say, like efes, zero. Why did they feel so small? Because they were evaluating everything on a purely physical basis, by size and strength. If that is all that a human being is, then indeed, the Israelites were doomed to failure, doomed to the ultimate end of all things physical -- death.

But Calev and Yehoshua understood that a human being is made up of more than flesh and blood. They say, Hashem itanu, “God is with us” (14:9). Perhaps what they mean is not just that God Himself is with the people, but also that God is inside all of us, that we all have a divine spirit, a special ruah. Yehoshua himself in fact carries God’s name inside of his own, having had his named transformed from Hoshea to Yehoshua through the addition of a yod from God’s name (13:16). And God says of Calev that he has a ruah aheret, “a special spirit” (14:24). These two felt that any task could be accomplished with the help of God and His spirit. They understood that it is this divine ruah which changes the equation, allows the weak to defeat the strong, the few to defeat the many. What is there in this world to be intimidated by when one has one’s eye on God?

If we are only flesh and blood, as the 10 spies feared, then we will inevitably feel small, and death is our end, towards which we crawl on the ground, like grasshoppers. The punishment of death in the desert for the 10 spies and their generation was thus a fitting one. But if we are more than flesh and bones, if we also have a divine ruah, as Calev and Yehoshua believed, then we can do greater things than even Bob the Builder; reaching up to the sky to assert our connection to the Eternal One, we can conquer giants.