Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Parashat Vayehi: On Protection and Connection

On his death-bed, Yaakov gives the following blessing to his grandchildren, Menasheh and Efraim:

The God before whom my fathers Avraham and Yitzhak walked,
The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day,
The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm
-----Bless the lads [Hebrew, ne’arim].
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzhak,
And may they grow into teeming multitudes upon the earth (Genesis 48:15-16).

Yaakov offers two blessings here: protection and connection -- the blessing of protection from God above and the blessing of connection to those who came before (Avraham and Yitzhak ) and to those who will come after (the teeming multitudes). May these children feel protected from all harm by God’s watching Angel. And may they feel that they are a link to the past and the future, standing between their ancestors and the growing future nation.

These two blessings are not separate here, but deeply intertwined. The protection comes from the God before whom our ancestors walked. It is through our connection to them that we learn to rely on God and to feel protected.

The form of the blessing expresses this message as well. The names Avraham and Yitzhak appear at the beginning of the blessing and at its end, and right in the middle— enclosed in the protective shell of their ancestors and their ancestors’ God - are the ne’arim, the children. It is their connection to the past and to the Angel who saved their parents that will serve as a comforting enveloping presence as they make their way and become multitudes upon this earth.

Yaakov knows from trouble in his life. When he looks into his descendants’ future, surely he sees that they, too, will face great trouble, years of slavery and oppression. He cannot undo this future. All he can do is offer them a sense of protection, a sense of being enclosed and watched over, like a shepherd watches his flock. And this sense of protection, he tells them, comes from above, from God, and also from behind and in front, from the ancestors who believed in God, and from the future generations who will carry on the tradition.

In the words of the midrash (made famous by a Mordecai ben David song), we are ma’aminim benei ma’minim, believers, the children of believers.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Parashat Vayigash: On Hiddenness and Revelation

Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers in this week’s parsha after a long period of hiding behind the mask of an Egyptian viceroy.

Hiddenness and revelation -- these concepts usually refer to God. Indeed, mystical interpreters like the Sefat Emet see this narrative as a parable for the soul’s search for the hidden aspects of God in the world.

There is support for such a reading in the narrative itself. Yosef is the first of our ancestors not to have direct communication from God, to live in a world – like ours – where God’s purpose is hidden. Yosef’s recourse is interpretation; he learns to see, or rather, to read, God’s purpose in dreams and life events. When he reveals his identity to his brothers, he also reveals something about God -- his interpretation of God’s role in his life, of God’s purpose in sending him down to Egypt to provide food for the family and for others. In a world where God is as hidden as Yosef is himself, divine revelation comes via interpretation.

Revelation is achieved by other means as well. Yehuda, too, plays a role in the process of unveiling Yosef’s identity. Through the speech which begins this parsha, he in effect forces Yosef to reveal himself. A midrash in Breishit Rabbah brings the following parable to illustrate Yehuda’s actions: It is like a deep well of fresh, cool water that no one can drink from because of its depth. Along comes a wise person and ties cord to cord, and thread to thread, until he is able to reach the fresh water at the bottom and draw it back up for all to drink.

Yehuda’s lengthy speech ties word to word and sentence to sentence to dig down deeper and deeper, reaching for the secret that he must have sensed lay hidden inside of this strange Egyptian viceroy. The midrash is an apt illustration of Yehuda’s task in relation to his brother Yosef – to uncover the depths of his hiddenness and to pull him back out of the pit they threw him into. But the midrash – with its use of the evocative figure of well water -- also seems to be reaching farther, to be implying a spiritual quest, an attempt to draw out of the depths of the world and all its hiddenness the cool fresh waters of spiritual sustenance, of divine revelation.

The midrash may also be referring to its own hard-won insights into the depths of the Torah. For the rabbis, the Torah is a deep well of secrets to be mined by those who – like themselves -- know how to tie cord to cord (and verse to verse) and keep digging until the fresh cool waters of the Torah’s secrets are forced to reveal themselves.

Revelation can be achieved by many means – by interpretation, by perseverance, and perhaps also through the kind of honesty, bravery and selflessness displayed by Yehuda in his speech. The key is to believe that there is something hidden to reveal in the first place, to have a sense of mystery about the universe, to be willing to dig deeply in the world and in the Torah in the hopes of reaching those fresh cool waters of revelation and inspiration.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chanuka and Parashat Miketz: On Miracles

Do you believe in miracles?

Chanuka begs the question. Al Hanisim ve’al hapurkan, we say and sing. “For the miracles and for the salvation,“ we thank you, God.

What is the miracle of Chanuka? Usually we say there are two. The military miracle, that a small band of Maccabees was able to defeat the mighty Syrian-Greek army. And the miracle of lights, that a single jug of oil lasted for eight days instead of one. But maybe these two miracles are –like the two dreams of Pharaoh that Josephs says are really one in this week’s parsha – actually two manifestations of the same phenomenon. Both miracles express the strength of something small, a single can of oil and a tiny nation. Chanuka is about the triumph of the small, the survival of the nation of Israel, which, like a little flame set against the backdrop of a long winter night sky, should, by all rights, have flickered and died long ago.

Chanuka teaches us to believe in miracles, strengthens our faith in the indomitable divine spark in our midst. Chanuka is by necessity a winter solstice holiday; coming at our darkest time in the year, it reminds us to believe in light even in the midst of darkness. In Pharaoh’s dream from this week’s parsha, the skinny cows and skinny stalks of wheat swallow up the fat ones. That is the natural way of the world, the way of our worst fears, that trouble will outflank fortune, evil crumble good, darkness overwhelm light. But on Chanuka we are all -- like Yosef -- able to combat such nightmares. We stand, armed with our little lights, and push against the darkness, declaring our faith that light – no matter how faint -- will always triumph.

Is this realistic? Sometimes the evil side has the bigger army, the larger guns, the power of the state to torture and kill. On Chanuka we assert that miracles are realistic, that it is not numbers or power or might that prevail, but spirit, the spark of divine light, the flame inside us. The Maccabees and their little can of oil stand for all those who should have given up but didn’t, all those who fight might with courage and faith – the American revolutionaries, Gandhi and his followers, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

On Chanuka we remember their heroism and are strengthened by it. The word Chanuka has the same root as the word for education, chinuch. Chanuka is a kind of education, an education of the soul. We begin with one candle – small and flickering – but over time, our faith grows, and each night we find ourselves capable of pushing back against that darkness a little bit more, until, on the final night, our houses are sparkling with light, and we, with courage and faith.

Unlike the miracles of Passover – the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea – the miracles of Chanuka happened through human agency. On Chanuka, we learn that we, too, are responsible for playing our part in making miracles happen. We thank God daily for turning darkness into light each morning, but He has also implanted in us the divine spark, a spark which is also capable of turning darkness into light, of lighting a candle in the midst of the darkest of nights.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Parashat Vayeshev: Yosef's Transformation

Our ancestors did not start out great. They grew, over time, through struggle and ordeal, into greatness. In the past few parshiyyot, we saw Yaakov suffer and grow in his own way. Now it is Yosef’s turn. Yosef starts out haughty and vain, taunting his brothers with his favored status and dreams of grandeur; we will watch him learn -- through the experience of being brought low, again and again – to be humble.

There are three sets of 2 dreams in the Yosef narrative and each set marks a different stage in Yosef’s development. The story begins with his own dreams, in which the earth and the sky bow down to him and revolve about him. What hubris! What blasphemy! While his father Yaakov dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven with God nitzav -- standing -- at the top, Yosef’s dream contains no God. No god, that is, except himself, the only one whose sheaf is nitzavah – standing -- in contrast to the bowing sheaves of his brothers.

Yosef is literally lowered from his pedestal multiple times in this parsha -- thrown down into a pit by his brothers, hurad, “brought down,” to Egypt, in the south, and then thrown into jail, also called here a “pit,” a place of lowness.

It is in jail that we begin to see a change in Yosef. The second set of dreams in the Yosef story does not belong to Yosef, but to the butler and the baker, his jail-mates. Yosef has grown. He is no longer narcissistically self-involved – dreaming of a world that revolves around him -- but is able to hear the needs and stories of others.

He also here acknowledges for the first time that God has something to do with his abilities, telling his dreaming jail-mates, “But God surely has interpretations! Tell me [your dreams].” This is new, this invocation of God as His partner, a definite step forward. And yet, at the same time, the statement implies an equation of himself with God – Yosef doesn’t spell out why they should tell him the dreams if it is God who has interpretations, making it seem like he is an extension of God in some way, also a kind of hubris.

Two more years of jail cure him. The final change in Yosef can be seen in next week’s parsha, in Yosef’s reaction to the third set of dreams, Pharaoh’s. In one word he reveals a complete change of attitude: Biladay, “Not I,” he says, but “God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Not I. What a long way Yosef has travelled from those first dreams of self-absorption!

Ironically, it is now – now that he can stand ego-less before Pharaoh, a humble servant of God – that he realizes his dreams of grandeur, becoming viceroy to the king. True greatness cannot be achieved without humility. One’s own dreams are only realized if one learns to listen to the dreams of others, becoming part of the world, not above it, a brother to others, not a god.

Yosef’s journey of self-transformation was a long, hard one. It inspires us with the possibility of transformation and also with the challenge to -- like Yosef -- turn life’s ordeals into opportunities for personal growth.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Parashat Vayishlach: On Separation

The parsha begins with a reunification – the meeting between Esav and Yaakov after 20years of estrangement – but its theme is actually separation. After the two brothers hug and kiss and make up, Esav suggests that they continue their journey together. But Yaakov thinks otherwise. Using his children as an excuse, he says he’ll catch up to Esav in the land of Seir. He never does. Instead he goes to his own land, the land God had promised him.

Yaakov and his family are becoming a nation, a separate nation with its own identity. Yaakov’s descendants will no longer return to the family home in Padan Aram as he did. Last week’s parsha ends with a peace treaty between Yakov and Lavan -- the representative of that Aramean family -- as they agree to part ways amicably. And this peace treaty, a pile of stones, is significantly named by each in a different language -- Yegar Sahaduta in Aramaic and Gal Ed in Hebrew -- the different languages helping to demarcate the new boundary between the two families and nations.

This week’s parsha completes that separation from the Aramean family and its idol-worshipping legacy as Yaakov instructs his household to get rid of their idols, burying them under a tree. Nahum Sarna suggests that the death and burial (also under a tree!) of Devorah, Rivkah’s nursemaid (35:8) -- a detail which seemingly has no place in the narrative – is, like the purging of idols, a symbol of the final severing of contacts with Mesopotamia. Rachel’s untimely death, related to her theft of Lavan’s household idols and Yaakov’s hasty oath concerning the thief, carries a similar message about the need to end such attachments to the Mesopotamian family idolatry.

Amidst all this, the Dinah story appears with its own theme of separation. The story begins in the city of Shechem with Dinah going out to hang with benot ha’aretz, “the local girls.” She is trying to assimilate, become part of the gang. When she is raped by the local chieftain’s son, the chieftain and his son offer Yaakov and his family a chance at just such assimilation and integration into the local population. “We will marry your daughters and you will marry ours, and we will become am ehad, one nation.” For Yaakov and his sons such integration is an impossibility; they are appalled at the sexual immorality that took place – “an outrage had been committed in Israel” -- and are certainly not about to join such a society. Their use of circumcision -- they demand that all males in the city be circumcised and then attack them in their weakness -- is in this respect more than a ploy; circumcision is indeed a sign of the difference between them and their fellow Canaanites, and it is this distinction which Yaakov’s sons wish to uphold.

And so Yaakov and his family--on the verge of becoming a nation -- move away first from Esav/Edom, then from Mesopotomia and finally from the local Canaanites in their own land. Their destiny is to be “a nation that dwells apart.”

Apart, yes. But to what end, the Torah seems to ask? For, soon after this incident in Shechem – where the sons of Yaakov condemn the local populace for their sexual immorality – we hear that Reuven, Yaakov’s eldest son, sleeps with his step-mother Bilhah. And then, in next week’s parsha, we begin the painful saga of Yosef, with all the terrible deeds done to him by his brothers.

Living apart is not enough. More than separation is required to create a nation that adheres to high moral standards. The Torah and its laws are needed. Maybe this is what Moshe learned, much later, in Exodus, when he went out of the palace that second time. The first time he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, and understood that salvation from outsiders was needed, but the second time, Moshe saw an Israelite hitting an Israelite, and must have understood that salvation from ourselves is also required. The Torah is that salvation.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parashat Vayetze: On Angels and Flies

Running away from his angry brother Esav and heading toward Haran to find a wife, Yaakov stops and sleeps on a sacred spot and dreams a famous dream: Above his head, there is a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels climbing up and down and God standing above.

Among the many interpretations of this dream, there is a midrash that compares the dream to the following strange scenario: A baby is lying on a bed with flies swarming around him. Along comes his nursemaid, lies down on top of him and nurses him, causing the flies to run away (Breishit Rabbah 69.3).

In this midrash, the flies are the angels, the sleeping baby is Yaakov, and God is the nursemaid. Now angels are usually understood as images of protection and aid, and so Rashi understands them here, but not so this midrash. For this midrash, they represent busy chaotic movement, like the buzzing of flies, a disturbance to one’s calm sleep. The midrash is picking up on the up and down movement of the angels and their multiple number. If they were merely portending good tidings, they would move solely upward. But no, they represent in their movement the ups and downs of life, its complications and travails. And, being more than one – the midrash says there must have been at least 4, 2 going up and 2 going down – their movement must have created a feeling of wild, swarming chaos, like the feeling one has in a room full of toddlers.

Indeed. Yaakov is, after all, headed, in this very parsha, to a life with 4 wives and 13 children. Not a life of peace and tranquility. Moreover, his is a life marked by great ups and downs, joys and difficulties. He is by all accounts successful, gaining his father’s blessing, marrying and having many offspring and becoming a wealthy man. These are the ups. Yet even amidst these pleasures, he is continually plagued by trouble -- conflict first with Esav and then with Lavan, the early loss of his most beloved wife as well as the loss of his favorite son for most of his life, his eldest son’s sexual misconduct, a daughter’s rape and the consequent extremely violent behavior of two other sons. It is no wonder that Yaakov, at the end of his life, tells Pharaoh that his life has been short and hard.

So, in the dream, Yaakov sees these angels –representing all the many life events that will bring him up and down the ladder -- he sees them all buzzing about, but he also sees something else, and here’s what the midrash is driving at. He sees God standing still at the top. Vehineh Hashem nitzav alav. Behold God was standing above, like the nursemaid driving away the swarming flies. The midrash highlights the way this verse creates a contrast to what comes prior. Vehineh, “Behold” the difference; the angels were moving up and down, moving, moving, moving, while God is simply nitzav, standing still. Maimonides says that this word, nitzav, when used in reference to God, means to be stable and permanent, constant (The Guide I:15). This is what Yaakov needs in his crazy chaotic life, a ladder held steady by a God who stands calmly and everlastingly at the top, making sure the bottom of the ladder also feels firmly planted in the ground, mutzav artzah. Life’s flies – the disturbing but necessary ups and downs of daily existence—do not exactly disappear with God standing above, but they no longer bother the sleeping baby, they no longer have the same disruptive power over Yaakov. After the dream, Yaakov builds a matzevah, which, like God and the ladder, is a stable standing structure, a permanent monument. It is an expression of what Yaakov has gained from this vision, a sense of stability amidst travail, a sense of peace amidst the flies.

Yaakov, more so than perhaps any of the other patriarchs, lives a life that looks familiar to us, an imperfect life filled with complications and troubles. God does not interfere much in his world; rather, He stands above, keeping the ladder steady, providing a well-spring of calm amidst a whirl of stress and chaos.

Further Thoughts: Some Other Interpretations of the Dream:

1) Rashi -- The movement of the angels up and down the ladder represents the changing of the guard. Yaakov is leaving the land of Israel so he needs different angels to accompany him outside the land. The old ones are leaving and the new, exilic ones arriving from above. This also explains the order of movement, first up, then down. At the end of the parsha, Yaakov meets up with angels once again, and here, too, Rashi explains them as the returning land of Israel angels coming to take their place as Yaakov begins his journey home. The angels thus surround the parsha, very much as they are meant, according to Rashi, to surround Yaakov wherever he goes.

2) Ibn Ezra and Radak similarly see the angels as forces of protection. They understand the ladder as intended to convey to Yaakov a sense that God controls all the events that take place on earth, that there is continual communication and control going back and forth between earth and heaven.

3) A different midrash (also Breishit Rabbah, 68.12) sees the ladder as a symbol of the Temple altar. The angels are the priests that go up and down the ramp to the altar, which is intended as a way to communicate with God, standing above. This interpretation is buttressed by the sense that Yaakov has reached "the place," a sacred place, the same place where the binding of Yitzhak occurred and the same place the Temple would be built.

4)Still another midrash (also Breishit Rabbah, 68.12) associates the sulam, the "ladder," with Sinai, pointing out that the two have the same gematria, the same numerical count of letters. According to this reading, the angels are Moshe and Aharon, going up and down the mountain, bringing down the Law for the people, as God's Presence comes down to reside at the to of the mountain. Both of these last two interpretations emphasize the sense of the ladder as a means of connecting heaven and earth, people and God, a way of facilitating communication between these two realms.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Parashat Toldot: Esav's Cries

Vayitzak tze’akah gedolah umarah ad me’od. “He cried out an exceedingly great and bitter cry (Gen 27:34).” This is the Torah’s description of Esav’s reaction to the news that his brother Yaakov had stolen his blessing.

We can rationalize Yaakov’s actions. He had in fact bartered for the first-born rights earlier in the parsha so the blessing was his for the taking. He had more foresight and was more polite and respectful than his brother. He is our ancestor, after all, and Esav is not.

But still, that cry of Esav’s -- tze’akah gedolah umarah -- screams out to us. Whatever else Yaakov did, he hurt Esav. Esav suffered because of Yaakov’s actions.

And such suffering, says the midrash, does not go unheeded by God. “Rabbi Hanina said: Whoever maintains that the Holy One blessed be He is lax in dispensing justice, may his bowels become lax. He [God] is merely long-suffering (Breishit Rabbah 67:4).” When, according to Rabbi Hanina, did God punish Yaakov for causing Esav to suffer? Hundreds of years later, during the time of Esther, when Mordecai hears of Haman’s plan to kill the Jews. There we are told that Mordecai cries the same cry as Esav -- Vayizak ze’akah gedolah umarah – “He cried out a great and bitter cry (Esther 4:1).”

When you cause someone pain, it has repercussions. “Hurt people hurt people.” Yaakov’s actions began a long-term cycle of hatred and suffering.

What is so remarkable about this midrash is that it paints God as being on the side of Esav. Esav is the father of the nation Edom which is traditionally understood to represent Rome, and therefore considered Israel’s arch-enemy. Here we have a story of God heeding the cry of Israel’s enemy, and indeed, punishing Israel for that enemy’s suffering. There is a famous saying that puts it this way: “More important than having God on your side is making sure that you are on God’s side.”

God is Israel’s God, but God is also the God of the world, and most particularly, the God of those who suffer. It is their cries that draw Him into the world. “Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground (Gen 4:10),” says God after Cain kills Abel, using that same verb tza’ak. And it is the tze’akah, the cry, of the mistreated in Sodom that draws God down to earth there too. Later, in Exodus, we are told that if we mistreat the poor, the widow or the orphan, they will surely cry out to God – tza’ok yitzak eli – and then God will come down to exact retribution (Exodus 22:22, 26).

God hears the cries of the mistreated, whatever nationality. Hagar, too, suffered at the hands of our ancestor Sarah, and there too God hears and responds. In fact, her son – also the father of an enemy of Israel – bears as his name the memory of God’s ability to hear such cries, Yishmael, meaning “God hears.”

Not all the deeds of our ancestors are meant to be emulated. The message here is not to act like Yaakov or Sarah, who cause the pain, but to act like God, who hears the cries of suffering. Perhaps that was the purpose of all the suffering the Israelites later endured in Egypt, to create a nation that -- because it was born out of suffering -- would always be attentive to the suffering of others.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Parashat Chaye Sarah: A Turn Toward Family

Last week’s parsha ends with the akedah, the binding of Isaac. This week’s parsha begins with the death of Sarah. There is a famous midrash that connects these two events, saying that Sarah died from the tza’ar -- the emotional distress -- of thinking her son was being killed.

No one was actually killed at the akedah, but the event was still a tragedy for Avraham and his family. Not only does he lose his wife, but in some ways, he loses his son Yitzhak as well. Before the event, on the way up the mountain, the text tells us twice, vayelchu shneyhem yachdav. “The two of them walked together.” After the akedah, though, after Yitzhak experienced his father raising a knife against him, we hear only of Avraham walking “together” with his servants. Intimacy with his son is no longer possible. The family is broken.

And yet, in a way, through this tragedy, Avraham learns something. The akedah forces him to take a certain natural tendency he had to an extreme and test it. Is it necessary, in order to have faith in God, in order to maintain complete focus in an intimate relationship with God, is it necessary to sacrifice one’s family? Are God and family mutually exclusive?

God answers this question with a resounding no -- Please do not sacrifice your child, your family for My sake.

And so, after the akedah, Avraham acts differently. The Torah says Vayavo Avraham lispod liSarah vilivkotah, “And Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” After the akedah, Avraham came to take care of Sarah, to do for her the only act of hesed, loving-kindness, still remaining– to mourn for her and to bury her. As my father has pointed out, the mention of crying and mourning at someone’s death is very unusual in the Torah. Not only that, but the Torah here goes into great detail concerning the process of burial – with a long description of the acquisition of the burial plot. All of this emphasis serves to highlight a change in Avraham, an attempt on his part to fix the imbalance of the akedah, to put his efforts back into his family.

The Torah says here Vayavo Avraham, “Avraham came.” Where did he come from to bury her? Was he in another city? Perhaps. But perhaps the verb indicates not just a change in location, but a change in heart. Avraham came – from the akedah—whole-heartedly back to his family.

After the akedah, after Sarah’s death and burial, the Torah suddenly informs us that Avraham was “old.” Wasn’t he already old – 100 at the birth of Yitzhak? Yes. But now he feels it, realizes his time on this earth – his time with those other beloved people around him – is limited.

And so, after taking care of his wife’s burial, Avraham turns to another beloved member of his family, his son Yitzhak. Sarah needed to be buried, but Yitzhak needs to get married. The parsha deals first with Avraham’s preoccupation with the first familial task, and next with the second, as Avraham sends off his servant to find an appropriate wife for his son.

What about God? Where is God in all this shift of focus to Avraham’s family? Avraham and God have become partners in taking care of Avraham’s family. Yes, there is some loss of intimacy here. After the akedah, God never speaks to Avraham again directly, but only through angels. There are no more of the awesome fiery visions of the previous parshiyyot. On the other hand, there is a new, more sustainable model for divine-human partnership. Both of the tasks Avraham occupies himself with in this parsha – taking care of the dead and bringing people together in marriage – are tasks that the rabbis say God considers His own occupation. Indeed, after the burial of Sarah, the midrash says that God made Avraham look “old” – like God—because He had adopted God’s burial occupation. And, concerning marriage, there is a famous story about a Roman matron who questioned a certain rabbi about God. Okay, she said, God created the world in 6 days, but what has He been doing ever since? The rabbi’s response? Ever since creation, God has been occupied with the making of matches.

This is what Avraham finally understood, after the akedah. If we want to participate in God’s work, if we want to be God’s partners in this world, we do not need to sacrifice and abandon those around us, but on the contrary, we need to join God in caring for them and helping to bring them together.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Parashat Vayera: On Avraham's Laughter

Avraham and Sarah’s son is given the name Yitzhak, from the root tzahak, meaning “to laugh,” because of their laughter upon hearing the prediction of his birth. They think: This is a surprise; we are too old to have children, and they laugh.

What is this laughter, and why is it memorialized in a patriarch’s name? This laughter is not a laughter of derision or disbelief, nor is it one of light-heartedness exactly. It is a laughter with deep sources, a laughter that epitomizes Avraham’s special approach to life.

It is the laughter of a man who was always open to surprises in life, to the sudden turns of fate over which humanity has no control. God promises Avraham a land and children. But life’s twists and turns seemingly thwart the fulfillment of these promises time and again. A famine forces Avraham to leave the land for Egypt. And Avraham sits childless for years. When he is finally granted a child born to his wife Sarah, he is asked to sacrifice him. Through all these trials – and the rabbis name 10 of them – Avraham is the picture of equanimity, never worrying or complaining. His attitude is epitomized by his response to Yitzhak on the way to the altar, Elokim yireh lo haseh le’olah, beni. “God will provide the sheep for the offering, my son (Gen 22:8).” Don’t worry. God is in charge. Life may seem to be going in the wrong direction, but God works in mysterious ways.

Avraham does not expect to know what the future will bring. Twice God gives him indefinite destinations and twice he follows, once at the start of the Avraham narrative, “Go forth . . . to the land that I will show you.” And once at its culmination, Go and sacrifice your beloved son Yitzhak “on one of the mountains that I will tell you.” Avraham does not need to know the future. He understands that we humans don’t control it anyway, and opens himself to whatever future God brings his way. This openness to life’s suprises is well captured by the opening scene of this week’s parsha, as Avraham is seen sitting petah ha’ohel, “in the opening to the tent,” open to whomever and whatever passes his way in this world.

This point of view, this way of living, is epitomized by laughter. Nahum Sarna points out that elsewhere in the Torah, God laughs at humans who think they can control their destiny (Pss. 2;4; 37:13; 59:9). Here, Avraham’s laughter expresses the same notion, from the human perspective. He laughs because he knows how little control he has and because he trusts in God’s ultimate plan, and this knowledge frees him from stress and worry.

It is hard to imagine having faith like Avraham. But to stand back and admire it is to see a way of life that is full of peace and joy. The New Yorker recently had an article about “Laughter Yoga,” the disciplined practice of intentional laughing. Adherents report that it is liberating, erasing all practical concerns and fears and leaving one with a sense of calm. Avraham was, in his own way, the first laughter yogi -- he achieved that same sense of calm and acceptance of life’s ups and downs by laughing the laugh of faith.

Some Loose Ends: Further Questions about Laughter
1) Avraham and Sarah each laugh, separately (17:17 and 18:12), upon hearing the prediction of Yitzhak’s birth. God admonishes Sarah for her laugh, but not Avraham for his. Rashi explains that these two laughs are of different sorts. (Rashi on 17:17). What textual support is there for making such a differentiation? Are there other ways to explain the discrepancy in God’s reaction?

2) The root tzhahak comes up on two other occasions in this parsha, both negative. One is with reference to Lot, Avraham’s nephew. When Lot warns his sons-in-law about the coming destruction of Sodom, he is in their eyes kemetzahek , “like one who jests” (19:14). In other words, they don’t believe him, making fun of his warning. The second time is with reference to Yishmael. Sarah sees him being metzahek (21:9) and decides that he and his mother must be banished. What was he doing? The JPS translates the word as “playing.” The context is Yitzhak’s weaning party; perhaps Yishmael was teasing or making fun of Yitzhak in some way. Rashi, citing verses from elsewhere in the Bible, says that metzahek can mean idolatry, sexual immorality or murder. How do all these uses of good and bad laughter fit together?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Parashat Lekh-Lekha: Making the Trip Your Own

In the end of last week’s parsha we learned that Avram’s father, Terah, had already started the family out on a journey to the land of Canaan. They never actually made it there, but they did leave their homeland, Ur Casdim, and travel part of the way to Canaan, stopping in Haran and settling there (Gen 11:31). Now, in this week’s parsha, God tells Avram to do the same thing his father had intended on doing –leave his homeland and travel to the land of Canaan. Why? What is the Torah telling us here?

All of our parents have already started our journeys for us. They brought us into the world and set us on a road, usually the road they themselves had been travelling. What happens next is essential. In Avram’s case, God says: lekh lekha, literally “go to or for yourself.” Rashi says it means, “go for your own good.” I read it as “make the trip your own.” Yes, it is the same path your father intended to walk, but make it yours, take ownership of it.

God continues by saying that Avram should leave his land, his birth place and his father’s house. Ironically, he will be fulfilling God’s command to leave behind his past by continuing his father’s journey. Avram’s leave-taking is a break that is continuous, a continuity that is also a break with the past.

Here is what makes it a break, what makes it a brand new journey for Avram. Terah went of his own accord, but Avram does so at God’s command. This is a journey originally conceived by man, but now sanctified by God’s command. As such, the journey, though physically the same, becomes entirely new and holy. The act is the same, but the intention, the kavanah, is different. Like a blessing before the performance of a mitzvah, God’s command transforms an ordinary action, the taking of a journey, into a special, holy one.

Avram makes the trip his own by making it also God’s trip, by making his travels a response to God’s command. The command begins with just Avram, lekh lekha, “Take this trip for yourself,” but it ends with both God and Avram -- el ha’aretz asher areka, “to the land that I will show you.” I and you, God and Avram, joined in that single word areka, which encompasses both the I and the you of “I will show you.” The Sefat Emet says this phrase means God will show you things you cannot see on your own. The trip’s destination becomes larger, grander, as a result of its sanctification by God.

The final destination for Avram’s physical journey is indeed the same as Terah had intended, the land of Canaan. But God does not speak of this physical destination. He speaks of “the land that I will show you,” of an open future. Terah’s journey ends before he reaches his final destination, stopping in Haran and dying there. But Avram’s journey never really ends. God tells him to keep walking, to traverse the land lengthwise and widthwise, and so Avram keeps travelling and God keeps showing him things, the sand and the sky, the future.

Avram’s journey is the task of every child. From the child’s perspective, every parent’s path is like Terah’s, just a physical road they have been asked to follow. Every child has the obligation and the opportunity to heed God’s call to Avram -- to make the trip her own, to give it meaning and sanctification, a sense of novelty and a future.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Parashat Noah: On the Tower of Bavel and the Danger of Unity

In the tower of Bavel story, God mixes up the people’s languages “so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” Shouldn’t we strive to understand one another? Why did God want to put distance between humans?

In the generation of the tower, there was apparently too much closeness, too much unity, too much homogeneity. The story begins by saying people had safah ahat, ”one language” and devarim ahadim, “few words or things.” Their problem was a lack of multiplicity; there were too few words and ideas in their society.

The sound of the text dramatizes this sense of sameness, as the modern scholar Cassuto points out. The people say to one another: Havah nilbinah leveinim and then havah nivneh lanu. It means, “Let us make brick,” and “let us build for ourselves,” but listen to the sound of it, havah nilbinah leveinim/havah nivneh lanu. This is a story about few words and it also has few words in it, the same words and sounds being repeated over and over. The words ehad, “one” safah, “language,” kol ha’aretz, “the whole earth” and shem, “name” or sham, “there,” are each repeated numerous times. The result is a story which sounds like the industrial assembly line it describes—the construction of a single tower, brick by brick, each the same as the last.

What is wrong with this model of human productivity? It is not creative. It is monotonous and immobile, building a single tower in one place. Pru urvu umilu et ha’aretz, says God repeatedly in these early stories -- be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Don’t have devarim ahadim, few ideas. Have many. Rejoice in the diversity of humanity. Shivim panim laTorah, say the rabbis – there are 70 different sides to the Torah, 70 ways of interpreting any one phrase, and our job as humans is to multiply meanings, to see all the colors of God’s post-flood rainbow, not to reduce them all to brick brown.

Maybe the problem was there were no individuals in Bavel. Before and after this story, we find long lists of genealogies with many an individual name but not in Bavel; the story itself has not a single personal name, and all action and speech is done in the plural. No wonder they had “few things.” The richness of many individuals had been reduced to group think. God made each individual in His image, which means, say the rabbis, that each one of us is slightly different. A society that does not prize and develop these differences to their fullest potential, a society that turns all its members into brick-layers, misses the essence of God’s rich world.

And so God comes down to the Tower builders and mixes up their languages, trying to get them to not understand each other, trying to get them to see that there are parts of other humans that are not the same as their own, that each person is a separate individual with his own language.

The midrash says that after God mixed up their languages, the people starting arguing. “I said to bring me a brick, not a hammer, you idiot!” The scenario sounds unpleasant, but may be exactly what they needed. Without conflict, ideas cannot blossom and grow. Jewish learning is traditionally suffused in argument, in the back and forth of Talmudic reasoning and all its rabbinic disagreements. Maybe what God was teaching the generation of the Tower was the value of conflict, the value of sometimes not agreeing, of creating a society of growth and variation, where there exist more than devarim ahadim, “a few things.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Simchat Torah and the Circle of Continuity

On Simchat Torah we read the last parsha of the Torah, Vezot Habrachah. The very last verse of that last parsha speaks of the great and mighty deeds Moshe did before the eyes of all of Israel. Rashi’s comment, his last on the Torah: This refers to Moshe’s breaking of the tablets in front of Israel at Sinai.

What a strange way for Rashi to end the Torah, with a reminder of the broken tablets of the Torah, with a reminder of the brokenness of Torah.

Rashi points us to the broken way in which the Torah itself ends. Moshe is left outside of the land of Israel, peering in to the Promised Land but not allowed to step foot in it. He dies and the people mourn him. Yehoshua takes over, the Torah tells us, and we know that Yehoshua does eventually take the people into the land of Israel, but we, the readers, like Moshe, are left outside, with a sense of incompleteness and fragmentation, a vague worry that, now that Moshe has died, the Torah’s brokenness will never be repaired.

Here is where our work begins. Moshe did not do the whole job. Vezot Habracha also includes the famous line, Torah Tzivah Lanu Moshe, Morashah Kehillat Ya’akov. “ Moshe commanded us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Ya’akov.” There is a progression here; Moshe is the one who first brought the Torah down for us, but even after he dies, it continues to be an inheritance for the whole congregation, now belonging to all of us.

We continue his work. Moshe left the Torah incomplete, and it is our job to make it whole again, to keep it alive and regenerating in every generation.

And so, on Simchat Torah, we do not leave the Torah hanging, broken and discontinuous at Vezot Habrachah, but begin again with Breishit, making it clear that the Torah is not a linear book, but a circular one, whose ending and beginning roll smoothly into one another. And, in celebration of the circle which is our Torah, we dance hakafot -- circles around the Torah. These are circles of continuity and regeneration, a promise to ourselves that the Torah will never end.

We do not make those circles alone. One person cannot a circle make. After Moshe, the Torah is the possession of kehillat Ya’akov, the whole congregation, and can only be carried on and repaired through the joining of hands and minds.

Rashi says that God congratulated Moshe on the breaking of the tablets. Why? Normally we think of God’s approval for this action as confirming its appropriateness as a reaction to the people’s sin. Perhaps, though, God was congratulating Moshe for something else, for giving the people a fragmented, incomplete Torah because it required the people’s continued participation and interpretation. Here was a Torah that would require many minds and hearts, for generations to come, to make sense of, in the process creating circles of community and continuity. Perhaps, this, according to Rashi, was Moshe’s greatest act of all.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Sukkot and Simplicity

This year the sukkah speaks to me of simplicity. We think we need a lot of material things in order to live and survive. But on Sukkot we leave all those things behind and live in a simple hut, a building with a minimum of three walls and a leaky roof. Maybe we need less than we thought.

On Yom Kippur we learned a similar lesson, living for 25 hours without food and drink. It turns out we can survive with very little.

We spend our lives amassing material things. We are surrounded by them, our houses cluttered by them. Sometimes it feels as if our minds are cluttered by them as well. They become a burden -- too many toys to clean up; too many clothes to keep track of. Perhaps that is what makes Sukkot a holiday of joy, zman simhateinu, as the rabbis call it. We are joyful because we are freed from our permanent abode with all its many possessions, freed to live out in a simple shed with only simple walls, perhaps a table and some chairs. Simplicity clears the heart for joy.

We go outside, to the world that God created for us, and discover, to our surprise, that all we really need is out there. The roof of our sukkah, the skhakh, must be made exclusively of materials that grow in the ground. And we fill our hands with the lulav and etrog, products of the earth. When we shake the lulav in all directions, we are surrounding ourselves with the simple, God-given pleasures of nature, an escape from our Fisher Price-filled lives.

Perhaps this concern with simplicity explains the emphasis in rabbinic discussions of Sukkot on the law prohibiting the use of a lulav hagazul, a stolen lulav. Stealing shows that one is still in the mind-frame of amassing possessions at all costs, still in the mind-frame of grabbiness and greediness, not yet freed by Sukkot’s message of simplicity.

Sometimes I think that we amass material possessions in order to escape the basic truth of our mortality, that we try to protect ourselves with stuff, putting layers and layers of it between us and death. In the wake of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with the awe of these days of judgment still upon us, attempting to escape seems futile; we have come face to face with our vulnerability. We know that, as Ecclesiastes – read on the Shabbat of Sukkot – says of man, “He must depart just as he came. As he came out of his mother’s womb, so he must depart at last, naked as he came. He can take nothing of his wealth to carry with him” (5:14). Stuff is not going to help us.

And so we leave our homes, leave our possessions for a week, to live out in a flimsy shed, to admit to ourselves that nothing we own can really protect us. We sit in our sukkot and look up through those tiny mandatory holes in our roofs and rejoice, rejoice at the sight of heaven, at the knowledge that though our stuff may not protect us, there is One above who will. On these days, we are just like the Israelites in the desert who also lived in sukkot – free from the burdens of a permanent home with all its encumbrances, free enough to see heaven and rejoice.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yom Kippur: Together, Not Alone

Teshuvah, “repentance,” literally means “return.” On Yom Kippur we return not just to God, the Hasidic master Sefat Emet reminds us, but also to our fellow human beings; Yom Kippur is a time when we repair the rifts between us, when we try to move beyond difference and separation and achieve a special unity.

The mishnah says we are not forgiven on Yom Kippur until we appease our fellow, ad sheyeratzeh et haveiro. The Sefat Emet says what we must do on Yom Kippur is not just to appease, ad sheyeratzeh, but also to be rotzeh our fellows, to actually want them and love them.

This attempt at unity and closeness is directly tied to our experience of God’s greatness both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are repeatedly reminded of the contrast between the eternal almighty God and the fragile, mortal human. The distinctions that matter, in other words, the lines that are drawn again and again are only those between heaven and earth. There are no lines drawn among humans. Compared to God, all of us down here are similar. We will all die one day and we are all being judged by God above.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Judgment, but it is not the day of our judgment of our fellows. We are commanded (on other days) to establish a judicial system and sit in judgment of those who do wrong in this world. But on this day, it is God alone who does the judging, and we humans are, all of us, the judged. And this experience of being judged, together, as a group, binds us. We are all in the same boat.

Yom Kippur is the day we become aware of the boat we ride together, like the ship that tossed and turned in the stormy waters of the Jonah story, affecting Jonah as well as all the other sailors aboard. Fasting together, going through the ordeal of not eating or drinking for a day together, provides a concrete experience of exactly this feeling, this sense that we are passing through life, with all its challenges, not alone, but as a community.

And so, when we do viduy, confession, too, we do not speak in the singular, but always in the plural. Ashamnu, bagadnu. Al het shehatanu lefanekha. We, as a community, are guilty; we, not, I, have committed the following sins. In the midst of the soul-searching that these confessions are meant to be, we remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are all sinners in some way or another, all similarly struggling through life, all in the same boat.

It is precisely through our experience of this day, through our shared confessions, prayers and fasting, through our new awareness of our shared struggles and challenges, that somehow the broken ties between us begin to repair, somehow we do return to each other, return to the kind of unity and community that, the Sefat Emet points out, is the prerequisite for receiving the Torah. Traditionally, Yom Kippur is understood as the day when the people of Israel received the second tablets of the Torah after their initial sin and repentance. The Sefat Emet suggests that part of what made this second giving of the Torah possible was the new height of unity the people achieved through their repentance, their teshuvah – return -- not just to God, but to each other.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rosh Hashanah First

Why does Rosh Hashanah come before Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is about human beings. It is about our fallibility, our impossible and eternal brokenness, and our attempt to fix that brokenness.

Rosh Hashanah is different. Rosh Hashanah is not about us, good or bad, but about God. On Rosh Hashanah we coronate God; we stand in awe, trembling at His supremacy.

Before we deal with us and our deeds (Yom Kippur), we deal with God (Rosh Hashanah). Our experience of God, our faith in His existence, is the prerequisite for our self-examination, the perspective that frames and fuels our turn into ourselves, the reason that we care who we are and how we act in this world in the first place.

Starting with Rosh Hashanah, starting with a focus on God and not man, also means starting with something very pure and simple, says the Sefat Emet. Rosh Hashanah is traditionally understood as the day God created the world, and the Sefat Emet, following mystical tradition, says that this process involved great fragmentation and differentiation as God’s pure spiritual essence created physical things. The name Rosh Hashanah, says the Sefat Emet, means the time “before,” rosh, “the change,” hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah each year we go back to a time prior to all that change and fragmentation; we have an experience of the original primordial unity.

The shofar blow is our call back to that state. It is, in many ways, a divine voice, the voice God used at Sinai and will use again in the messianic redemption. It is also a primordial sound, a sound without the differentiation of syllables and words and the fragmentation of different languages. It is the most basic and simple of sounds.

When we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are trying to remind ourselves of our simple primordial connection to God. The shofar blasts always begin and end with the simple tekiah, that long solid uninterrupted blow. In between are fragments and brokenness, some more broken, like the teruah, and some less broken, like the shevarim. But always these broken sounds must be surrounded, contained, framed by the pure, solid, simple tekia’h¸as if to remind us that such is our task on these days, to try to bring all that human disruption and fragmentation into some kind of simple divine focus. Our daily human lives feel complicated and bifurcated; we are dizzy with stress and pressure from all sides. But Rosh Hashanah calls us to feel the simplicity of a life lived in recognition and service of God.

Throughout this season we recite Psalm 27. One of its most famous lines is Ahat sha’alti me’et hashem, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, only that do I seek; to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent His temple.” This is the time of year when we try to make it simple, to concentrate on that ahat, that one thing that matters and shapes everything else.

The Psalm speaks of dwelling in God’s house all our days; this is impossible and also not laudable. We are meant to live out in the world, in all of our and its brokenness. Ps 62 says ahat diber elokim, shtayim zu shamati. “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard.” God may speak in a single voice, but we humans are incapable of hearing it that way; for us God’s unified word and unified world immediately fragments and multiplies. That is the normal way of human existence. But on Rosh Hashanah we experience what it’s like to dwell in God’s house, to feel surrounded by God’s presence as we are surrounded by the sound of the shofar. And it is that feeling, that sense of clarity and focus that we do carry out into our daily lives, so that we may see and seek the divine at all times, and in such a frame of mind, move on, through ten days of repentance and Yom Kippur, to repair the fragments.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Parashat Devarim and Tisha B'Av: On Rebuke and the Notion of Second Chances

Nobody likes to be rebuked or criticized.

So what do we do with the Torah’s rebuke, its tochachah? This is the week to talk about it, as rebuke is the theme of both the parsha, the beginning of the new book of Devarim, as well as the theme of the haftarah, Isaiah 1, a prophecy of extreme rebuke. This parsha and haftarah are always timed to coincide with one another and with the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’av, a fast that commemorates the destructions of the Temples and other calamities.

The rabbis say that the word devarim, “words,” was chosen to describe Moshe’s words in this parsha because the root implies harshness and rebuke. Indeed, Moshe speaks harshly to the people here, reminding them of their sins, of how they mistrusted God again and again during their years in the desert and were too fearful, after the spies' report, to enter the land at the first opportunity. Isaiah in the haftarah has his own poetic words of criticism, saying that the people have abandoned God, that their hands are full of blood, that they are evil like Sodom and Gomorrah.

How depressing! Maybe that is our destiny. Maybe, as God says after the flood, man is “evil from his youth (Gen 8:21),” doomed to a life full of mistakes and sins, without hope of ever being different.

Ah, but there is hope. And that is the whole point of rebuke – to inspire change, to make room for second chances. “Wash yourselves clean,” says Isaiah. “Learn to do good.” “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.” Here is a strong belief in the possibility of complete self-transformation, of coloring yourself a new color. Rebuke is not meant as a life sentence, but as a call to change. It is an expression not of despair about the nature of humanity, but of faith in humanity’s infinite flexibility, the never-ending possibilities which lie in every human soul. Isaiah calls the heavens and the earth to witness this rebuke; they stand, still and silent, as unchanging, permanent witnesses to the human capability of being just the opposite, not still, but mobile, bending, turning from red to white.

Note that Moshe’s lengthy rebuke of the people does not occur immediately after their various sins, but rather during their 40th year, as the people stand on the border of the promised land, as they stand poised to take their second shot at entering that land. His rebuke is not meant to cause despair, to give the people a life sentence for their sins, but on the contrary, it is meant to inspire them to act differently this time, to embrace their second chance with both hands.

The Torah believes in second chances, as well as in third and fourth chances. That is why we need all the commandments in the first place, as a way of practicing good behaviors so that they become part of our nature. There is no assumption that our nature is automatically good and generous, but that we have the opportunity, again and again, to learn, by practice, to do better. Moshe reminds the people that they were fearful at their first opportunity to enter the land. Now they have been through 40 years of desert travel, 40 years in which God provided for them and fought their battles. Perhaps now they have had enough practice in trust and bravery to be ready to enter the land.

The book of Devarim is itself a kind of second chance. The rabbis call it the mishneh torah, which, like “Deuteronomy,” means the “Second Law,” as it is Moshe’s repetition of most of the laws that came earlier. People need to hear the laws more than once to learn to do them. They need not one opportunity, but many, as learning comes through repetition.

Sometimes the learning is inter-generational. The midrash suggests that rebuke is often done by those approaching death, like Moshe here, in his last year of life. To be a human being is to wake up each morning with the opportunity for a new beginning, for a second chance to live this day differently than the one that preceded it. But such is not the case for the dying. For them the second chances have almost worn out. And yet they do have another kind of second chance -- their children and grandchildren. Through them the possibilities are eternal. The generation that left Egypt was fearful and anxious at the thought of entering a new dangerous land. They died in the desert. But in his own dying days, Moshe looks at this new generation and rebukes them with the aim of repairing the mistakes of their ancestors, with the aim of creating an inter-generational second chance, an opportunity for the people of Israel, past and present, to enter the land with bravery and trust.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Parashat Pinhas: On Taking Your Part

Ashrei Adam she’hamakom modeh lidvarav. “Fortunate is the person whose words God agrees with,” says the midrash Sifre Bamidbar. It doesn’t happen often, that God affirms the words of a human being. But it happens in this week’s parsha.

The 5 daughters of a man named Tzelafhad approach Moshe with a request. The land of Israel is being divided among tribes and families and their own father is no longer alive and left no sons, through whom the inheritance would normally flow. “Why should our father’s name be lost? Give us a portion,” they say. This is one of 4 legal questions recorded in the Torah which Moshe did not immediately know the answer to, and had to turn to God for guidance. God’s response: Ken bnot Tzelafhad dovrot. “Rightly speak the daughters of Tzelafhand.” Ken. Yes, in modern Hebrew. True. Just so. God affirms these women’s views.

But why? What’s so great about their request? It is essentially a “gimme” request, “Give us some land.” Is such grabbiness to be admired?

The midrash says that their father was the mekoshesh etzim, the man who gathered wood in violation of the Sabbath and was stoned to death (one of the other 4 cases in which Moshe consulted God). To gather wood on Shabbat – that is grabbiness. There are 6 days to do plenty of taking and gathering in the world. But on the seventh it is time to acknowledge that none of it is ours.

These daughters, like their father, wanted to take something, but they took in a way that was appropriate and even admirable. What they wanted to take was their helek, their “portion” in the land that God was giving them. They wanted to “take their part” in the community’s new undertaking. Taking your part is not just a privilege, a gift, but also an obligation, the daughters understood. This is not a time to plead humility, to hide yourself and have your father’s name erased, as if you don’t exist and don’t matter. This is a time to stand up, as the Torah explicitly says they did – vata'amodnah –and demand to take your part.

There is a famous Talmudic saying that when we get to heaven we will have to account for all of the world’s great pleasures that we did not enjoy during our lifetime. The world that God created was meant for taking and enjoying.

There is also another sense of helek, “portion.” When we finish a section of Talmud, the traditional blessing thanks God shesamta helkenu meyoshvei bet hamidrash, for having made our portion, our helek, that of Torah study and not some other less meaningful activity. Such a helek is both a gift and an obligation, as the daughters of Tzelafhad understood. It is the kind of helek that one must not let pass by, but demand to play a part in.

And God celebrates the part we play in his Torah. That is the meaning of the ken He gives to these women. When He created the world, He commanded the earth to bring forth grasses and animals, and the waters to create fish. Vayehi khen. And so it was. The world responded with a ken to God’s commands. Here, the converse occurs in a beautiful way. These daughters take their part in Torah, pointing out a problem in the existing system and a possible solution, and God, for His part, says ken back to them. God affirms our role as His partners in His world and in His Torah. The partnership has limitations, as Tzelafhad, the Sabbath wood-gatherer and his daughters, learned. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t obligated,like those daughters, to take in proportion, to take our helek, to demand that we participate.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Parashat Hukat:The Changing of the Guard

The school year is ending. Summer vacation is beginning. It is a time of transition, in our lives and also in this week’s parsha.

The Israelites are in their fortieth year of desert travel, most of the generation that left Egypt has died, and now, in this week’s parsha, two of the leaders, Miriam and Aaron, die, too. It is the end of an era, and also the start of a new one, the entrance to the land of Israel.

With the death of one generation and the birth of a new one, there must be some continuity, some passing on of the mantle. The first time messengers are sent from the Israelite camp to a king in this week’s parsha (Num 20:14), Moshe is the sender; the second time, though, the Torah says that the Israelites themselves did the sending (21:21). The passing on of the mantle happens in a literal way,too, with Aaron and his son Eleazar; as part of the ritual of Aaron’s death, Aaron takes off his high priestly clothing and Eleazar puts it on, symbolizing Eleazar’s new status.

Eleazar is also the named priest who is said to enact the ritual of the Red Heifer which begins this parsha. The Red Heifer ritual seems to evoke a feeling of just such continuity in the face of death. The ashes of this red heifer (made redder by the addition of some “crimson stuff”) are mixed with water, to create a red water which must have looked something like blood, and is then sprinkled on any person who comes into contact with the dead. It is as if the continuity of life, its flow from generation to generation -- like the blood that courses through our veins in life -- must be affirmed in the face of the disruptive presence of death.

According to one midrash, Moshe finds God studying Mishnah Parah -- the rabbinic tractate dealing with the Red Heifer -- and quoting one of its great sages, Rabbi Eliezer. Moshe is impressed by the honor God gives to this future sage’s Torah learning and says: “May it be Your will that he (this sage) be among my descendants.” Just as the Red Heifer ritual itself is a response to death, Moshe’s request is also a response to death – hope that his children carry on his Torah project and take it to new heights, making themselves a part of the living, eternal Torah, as the mishnaic Rabbi Eliezer does.

After Miriam dies, there is no water in the camp. The midrash says the well which had accompanied the Israelites in her honor had dried up. Torah is often compared to water. When Miriam died, a well, a source of Torah, died too. It was time for the people to learn to dig their own wells, to take their part in Torah, to become active and creative partners in the Torah’s transmission.

Later in the parsha, the people sing a song about a well. The Torah uses the same phrase to refer to their song here as to the song at the Sea. Az yashir. “Then he sang.” (Num 21:17). The Sefat Emet points out that there, at the Sea, Moshe led the singing, while, here, only Israel sings. He explains that this second song about a well refers not to the Written Torah that Moshe brought down from Sinai, but to the Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Torah which involves active human participation. With their leaders dying, the people are learning to take part in the continual unfolding of Torah, to keep it a Torah that is alive, like the mayim hayim, “the living waters,” which are used in the Red Heifer ritual.

All endings are beginnings. In the face of death, we sprinkle a kind of ritual “blood-water,” a symbol of the new life to come and its continuity to the past. In the face of their leaders’ death, the people face new challenges and responsibilities. They also, like us, bear the burden and the privilege of keeping the Torah alive and vibrant from one generation to the next.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Parashat Korah: Wholly Holy?

Korah seems to be right. In this week’s parsha, Korah the rebel gathers a gang around him, complaining that Moshe and Aaron have usurped too much authority. Korah and his gang make a populist argument, saying, “The whole congregation, they are all holy, and within them is the Lord. Why then do you lord yourselves over the community of God?” Isn’t Korah right? Aren’t all the people kadosh, “holy?” Isn’t God in every one of us?

Yes and no. Yes, we are all capable of kedushah, holiness, but no, we are not all automatically, intrinsically holy. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues, kedushah is not a natural-born privilege, a prerogative of “the chosen people,” but a responsibility, an obligation, a goal to work toward. In the book of holiness, Leviticus, God does not say, “You are holy (already),” but rather, “You shall be holy,” kedoshim teheyu. The only one who is intrinsically holy is God Himself, and it is our project in life to mimic Him through our actions, to strive toward that goal.

The midrash says that Korah and his gang came to Moshe wearing cloaks made entirely of techelet -- that special blue thread normally used for tzitzit, for the ritual fringes worn on garments – and said, “Why would we need to wear tzitzit on such garments as these, when the entire garment is made of techelet?” Moshe responded that such garments would nonetheless require tzitzit, a response that elicited mockery from the rebels.

Here is what they were saying: We, the people of Israel, are like these techelet garments. We are already all holy; we do not need any special rituals and we do not need any special leaders to make us holy. We are of our very essence techelet, nobility.

Ahh. But humans are never of their very essence techelet. That is the whole point of tzitzit. It is a much needed reminder to be holy, because humans err, humans forget, humans get distracted by unimportant things.

The people’s time in the desert, and indeed much of the Torah’s narrative, is filled with complaints and mistakes and wrong turns. Just last week the people wrongly followed the 10 scouts into a state of despair about the conquest of the land of Israel. This is not a perfect total techelet people, a people so holy they have no need of laws and leaders to help them in their holiness quest. Perhaps the Torah deals at such length with all of these failures to make this point abundantly clear -- kedushah is not a given, but a goal. The Torah is a process book; it offers tools to help in this life struggle, not congratulatory handshakes on our natural holy state.

As Rabbi Yossi says in Pirkei Avot, you should prepare yourself to work hard at the Torah, to really earn it, because the Torah is not your yerushah, your inheritance, automatically yours (1:1). Korah thought holiness was his inheritance, his prerogative. He prepared himself not to toil and struggle, but to take and receive – vayikah Korah, “Korah took.” But, as the last line of Pirkei Avot says, no pain, no gain – lefum tzara agra -- according to the pain, the dedication, the struggle, so is the reward.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Parashat Shelach: Different Kinds of Vision

Shelach lekha -- send out 12 scouts to the land of Israel in preparation for its conquest -- is God’s command to Moshe at the start of this parsha. The command is similar in sound to another, much earlier one in history, God’s command to Avraham also to go to the land of Israel, lekh lekha.

Both Avraham and the 12 scouts traverse the land from one end to the other, but in opposite directions. Avraham arrives from the north, makes his way to the south, out to Egypt and then back up again from south to north. The scouts begin in the desert south and move up to the hilly north and back down again and out through the desert to meet up with Moshe and the Israelites.

They travel in opposite directions and they react in opposite ways. Avraham is a visionary. When he sees the land, he does not just see soil and produce, people and fortified cities. He sees God; he sees the future; he sees his descendants’ destiny. His faith in God’s promises is so strong that the future – though 400 years away – seems real and secure to him; he can see it and imagine it. Avraham is the kind of person of whom it is said, on multiple occasions, that “he raised up his eyes and saw.” When he sees, he looks upward, to heaven, and to the stars which represent his future of innumerable children.

Not so his great-great-great . . . grandchildren, the scouts (or at least 10 out of 12 of them). They were not visionaries, but land appraisers. They looked not up at the stars, but down at the grapes. They did no stand tall with faith in God and their promised destiny, but squatted like grasshoppers in the fields, burdened down by the weight of the fruit they carried.

Mired in physical realities, the 10 scouts return to report that the land will be impossible for the Israelites to conquer. They have no vision, no faith, no imagination, no spirit. And so, their words come true. For them. For such as them, the land is indeed impossible to conquer. Great things happen only to those who believe in them. Yehoshua and Calev, the 2 lone good scouts, say “Yes, we can do it,” and so, eventually, they do. But to the 10 doubting scouts, God says He will do exactly as they predicted; they will indeed not enter the land; “In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop (14:32).” They have turned themselves into nothing but carcasses, flesh without spirit.

The antidote to such an attitude, the key to having a more Avraham-like frame of mind is given in the final part of this parsha -- tzitzit, the fringes worn on four-cornered garments. What is the point of wearing such strings on the corners of one’s garments? “You shall see it and you shall remember all the commandments.” Vision. Learning how to see right. Rashi suggests that one of the roots for the word tzitzit is in fact related to seeing, to being metzitz. Tzitzit are a visual reminder of how to view the world, of how not to be, like the 10 scouts, merely appraisers of physical reality, of how to train oneself to see like Avraham, with vision, faith and imagination.

The Torah says tzitzit should have one cord of blue, techelet. The rabbis suggest that this color was chosen in order to remind one of heaven, to remember to look up. The word used to refer to the corners of the garments on which tzitzit are worn is kanaf, a word that also refers to a bird’s wing. Tzitzit are an attempt to give humans, mired to the ground through forces of gravity, the wings to fly high, to lift themselves up like Avraham, and become aware not just of the grapes below but also of the heavens above.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Parashat Beha'alotekha: On Humility

When Gooney Bird -- a children’s book character in second grade-- takes out a bib to wear at lunch one day, the other children wonder why she isn’t embarrassed to wear something so babyish, and she says simply, “I am never ever embarrassed.”

What does it take to not be embarrassed? A healthy ego? A feeling of self-confidence and security? Yes. But surprisingly, the Torah tells us it takes something else, too. Humility, a sense of one’s small place in the universe, a sense that one’s ego is not so important as to warrant constant defending.

In this week’s parsha, Beha’alotekha, Moshe is faced with two situations in which he might have been embarrassed or angry, but in both, like Gooney Bird, he is not. 70 elders are taken to the Tent of Meeting to receive a little of Moshe’s divine prophetic spirit. When someone comes to inform Moshe that two other elders, Eldad and Medad, have been prophesying, on their own, inside the camp, instead of under Moshe’s direction, Yehoshua is outraged on Moshe’s behalf, suggesting the two be imprisoned. But Moshe himself? He says: “If only the whole nation of God were prophets!” (Num 11:29). Because he is not concerned with his own ego, he does not feel threatened, but can honestly celebrate others’ success.

In the second situation, Aharon and Miriam, Moshe’s brother and sister, gossip and complain about him. The Torah does not record a reaction by Moshe, but instead tells us that Moshe is “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (12:3). Being a truly humble person, Moshe does not consider such slights against his person worthy of attention.

King David was also known for his humility. Even though he was a powerful king, he danced like a peasant before the Holy Ark as it was being transferred from city to city. His wife, Michal, peeking from a window, thought he should be ashamed, that such frolicking did not befit royalty. But David, like Gooney Bird, was not embarrassed. He understood that to humble oneself in joyful servitude of God is never embarrassing.

Moshe’s humility, too, must have stemmed in part from his sense that what he was doing was working and dancing before God. His constant and intimate contact with God – it is in this week’s parsha, too, that we hear that he spoke to God “mouth to mouth” (12:8)—must have given him a sense of perspective on his smallness, and also, a sense of the largeness of something else, the largeness of God and of God’s project, the Torah. In relation to these large projects that really matter, concerns for one’s own ego become petty, frivolous, unimportant.

This exceeding humility is the only great quality explicitly attributed to Moshe. Not intellectual brilliance. Not physical prowess. Humility. Moshe was the person who wrote the whole Torah, was God’s conduit for it all. Why? According to one ancient rabbi, Torah is compared to water because it flows to the lowest place, to the person who has managed to make himself most humble, and therefore most open to divine gifts. Such a person was Moshe.

Such a person was also the great sage Hillel. The law is decided according to the House of Hillel, says the Talmud, because of their great humility, because they always quoted the opinion of their rivals, the House of Shammai, before their own opinion (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b). Humility leads to a kind of openness to all truths, an acknowledgment that each of us has only a small piece of the truth and that we therefore need to be open to one another. If you’re too worried about your own performance, your own ego, you often can’t hear what anyone else has to say. The humble person, by not worrying about embarrassment, becomes a vessel into which water flows easily from all sources.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bemidbar/Shavu'ot: Linking Arms

In a children’s book by Lois Lowry, second-grader Gooney Bird Greene, who has no siblings, is charged with the task of writing a short poem about her family. When it is her turn to recite her poem, she requests others to come stand up at the front of the classroom with her. Her teacher and all the students in the class stand with her, holding hands in a long line encircling the classroom, as she reads: “I’m an only/ But not lonely.”

This week we start a new book of the Torah, Bemidbar. We are all fundamentally bamidbar, ”in the desert,” alone. Perhaps that is why the Torah begins this book with a census. Counting people puts them together into a group, reminds people that they have each other, that they are part of a larger entity.

My 3-year old loves to count. Lately, what he is fascinated by is how numbers are surrounded by one another. “4 comes before 5 and after 3, right? 6 comes before 7 and after 5?” That’s what numbers do; they form a line, connecting one digit to the next one. We are in the midst of counting from the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot for precisely this reason, to form a chain of links from one holiday to the other, to attach them to each other.

Devek. That’s the modern Hebrew word for glue. It is also the word used in this week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot to describe one of the attributes associated with Torah study, dibbuk haverim, “attachment to friends or fellows” (6:6). And it is also the word used to describe Ruth’s activity in the book of Ruth, to be read on the upcoming holiday of Shavu’ot. Rut davkah bah. “Ruth stuck with her,” stuck with Naomi, her mother-in-law.

Here is the context: Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave the land of Israel during a famine and settle in Moab. According to the midrash, they were a wealthy family and left the land because they did not want to share their bread with all their hungry brethren during a famine. In Moab, the family’s two sons marry Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah, and then father and both sons die. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law set out to return to the land of Israel. Orpah, whose name means something like “back of the neck,” turns her back on Naomi and returns to Moab, while Ruth sticks with Naomi.

Ruth’s act is a tikkun, a reparation, for the act of her father-in-law in leaving the land of Israel in the first place. He did not “count” himself to be one of his brethren during their time of trouble. Ruth, though a foreigner, counts herself a part of Naomi’s family and nation, even during hard times, after both sons have died.

That is what it means to be loyal, to stick with someone through thick and thin, like a 3 sticks to a 4. Another of the attributes associated with Torah study in that same Pirkei Avot list (6:6) is nose be’ol im haveiro, “one who shares in the burden of his fellow,” one who links arms with his fellow in times of trouble as well as times of joy.

Such behavior is modeled by God Himself, who, Rashi says, is constantly counting the people of Israel because He loves them so much. When does He count them? Through good times and bad, when they triumphantly leave Egypt together, their first act as a nation, and again, after their first big sin, the sin of the Golden Calf. Here, now, in the beginning of the book of Bemidbar, God counts them again, this time because He wishes to reside among them, to count Himself a part of them as they travel through the lonely desert, their camp like linked arms surrounding His tabernacle home.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Parashat Behar/Bekhukotai: Walking with the Torah

The first of this week’s double parshiyyot, Behar, begins by telling us that the commandments which follow, mostly concerning the Sabbatical (shmita) and Jubilee (yovel) years, were delivered Behar Sinai, at Mount Sinai.

Rashi, citing the midrash Sifra, asks the famous question: Mah inyan shmita etzel har Sinai? What does the law of the Sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai? Why tell us that Mount Sinai was the location for this mitzvah?

I want to spin this question and broaden it. Mah inyan shmita etzel har Sinai? Why is it relevant for the Israelites to study shmita – which only applies in the land of Israel – at Mount Sinai, in the middle of the desert? And why is it relevant for us, who live in the exile, in America, to study this portion of the Torah at all? Moreover, on a larger scale, one could and often feels like asking this question concerning the whole book of Leviticus, which we are concluding this week: Why bother reading about all of the priestly and sacrificial laws when we no longer have a Temple? Mah inyan Vayikra etzel Albany? Of what relevance is the book of Leviticus to the Jews of Albany today?

Notice that the Torah’s Temple laws are taught primarily in relation to the mishkan, the Tabernacle, a home for God each part of which has holes and poles for transportation. It is God’s mobile home, a portable Temple for the long desert journey. The Tabernacle’s portability symbolizes the Torah’s own portability. The Torah – land-related laws like shmita and all -- was not given in the land of Israel, but in the desert, as part of a long journey. It is a portable book, meant for all people, in all places and at all times.

Parts of the Torah cannot always be applied or enacted, but they can always be studied. Rashi, again following the midrash Sifra, emphasizes the study element of our relationship to the Torah in his interpretation of the first verse of the second of our two parshiyyot, Bekhukotai. The second phrase in that verse, “And observe My commandments,” clearly refers to the observance of the laws, so what does the first phrase –Im bekhukotai telekhu, literally, “If you walk in My laws,” -- tell you? That you should be amelim baTorah, “working at the Torah,” engaged in the work of its study. How can you “walk” with God’s Torah, make it portable, and carry it with you from place to place and age to age? By studying it. Some laws may not apply, but they can always and everywhere be studied. The laws of shmita were given on Mount Sinai, where they did not apply, to show that from the start, the Torah had parts that were not immediately applicable, but that were nonetheless to be studied and honored.

Parashat Bekhukotai presents a choice between the observance and non-observance of God’s laws. But there is also another choice, the choice of how to view the Torah, whether as a source of continued relevance for study or as a dead, antiquated book. A midrash on parashat Behar speaks of the power of the tongue to either bring life or death. If the mouth breathes on a coal, the coal comes to life and burns brightly, but if the mouth spits on the coal, the coal dies. The Torah is the same. We can either view it as a dying ember, or as a coal we can ignite into flames.

The reward is commensurate to the task. If we do “walk” with God’s Torah, and keep it relevant and aflame, the parsha tells us that one of the blessings we will receive is that God will “walk along with us,” vihithalakhti betokhakhem. The Sforno points out that the word vehethalakhti does not imply a particular destination, but a kind of wondering from place to place. If we walk with the Torah, bringing it wherever we go, then God promises to walk alongside us, too, wherever we go.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Parashat Emor: On Fields Without Corners

Uvekutsrekhem et ketzir artzekhem. “When you reap the harvest of your land” (Lev 23:22 and 23:10). What then? What do you do with your successes, your accomplishments, your wealth, your good fortune? Two things, according to the Torah. One in relation to God and the other in relation to people.

First, you bring the new harvest before God, to the Temple, once at Passover time and then again, a second new harvest, at Shavu’ot time. The time between these two holidays and their special harvest gifts, 7 weeks or 49 days, is counted, day by day, a count known as Sefirat HaOmer.

Second -- and the Torah interrupts its discussion of the holiday calendar to tell us this, even though the law already appeared once in the last parsha – when you reap your harvest you must leave the corners of your fields for the poor.

Take two actions when you achieve success. First, acknowledge that your achievements are not entirely your own doing, that you owe your good fortune to the God who has blessed you. Uvekutsrekhem et ketzir artzekhem. When you reap the harvest of your land, you might be tempted to think that it is all shelakhem, all yours ; you can hear this sense of ownership in the repetition of the suffix –khem. But no, the first step is to bring some piece of it to God, to move yourself toward a place of gratitude and humility. Out of this sense of humility, a turn to the poor is natural, easy. If the harvest is not entirely yours or your accomplishment, then it belongs equally to others, especially to those others whom God cares about, the needy.

The point of all this giving, according to the Sefer HaHinukh, is not only to feed the poor, but also to train one’s heart to feel content and blessed, and therefore generous, to have the feeling that one’s portion overflows, like the cup of wine at Havdalah. Even poor people are obligated to leave the corners of their fields untouched; after all, they, too, need to cultivate this feeling of blessedness and contentment, and the more one gives, the more one feels one has to give. In not cutting the edges, one acts grandly, generously, and trains oneself to feel that there is enough to spare.

Here, too, there is a deep connection to the Passover-Shavu’ot holiday period. The count from one holiday to the other is to last for sheva shavu’ot temimot, seven complete weeks. Shavu’ot is a celebration of fullness or contentment, both the fullness of the harvest and the fullness of time. The daily count reinforces this sense of contentment, as each day of life, of breath, is acknowledged to be a gift from God, and a source of great blessedness.

As it says in this week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot – there is a tradition of reading one chapter a week of this 7-chapter work between Passover and Shavu’ot – “Who is wealthy? He who is happy or content with his lot.”

Monday, April 19, 2010

Parashat Aharei-Mot/Kedoshim: Looking Out for Each Other

The second of this week’s two parshiyyot, Kedoshim, begins with the command to be kadosh, “holy,” in imitation of God’s holiness. What does it mean to be holy? The parsha continues with a series of many short commandments which together define the parameters of our holiness assignment. The commandments range from pe’ah, the leaving of the corners of one’s field for the poor to an injunction against lying to the need to eat a sacrifice within a prescribed time and place.

Let’s look at one representative example of these commandments. Lifne iver lo titen mikhshol. “Before a blind person, you shall not put an obstacle” (Lev 19:14). The classical rabbis interpret this commandment very broadly, to refer to a suma badavar, “a blind person with respect to a certain matter” or even, as Maimonides puts it, a person who is so blinded by his desires that he does not see the right path. One should not place an obstacle in front of such people, meaning that one should not give them bad advice or create an opportunity for them to sin.

Here are some examples the rabbis give (based on Nehama Leibowitz’s discussion). Do not advise someone to sell his field in exchange for a donkey, bad business advice which the advisor is giving for his own benefit. Do not sell weapons to a robber. If you do, you are creating new opportunities for him to sin, and in this, you, too, are considered culpable. Make sure to mark all graveyards so that you do not create an opportunity for a priest to defile himself unknowingly. Do not hit your son if he is larger than you for it creates an opportunity for him, in his largeness, to hurt you, a cardinal sin. Do not lend money to someone without witnesses or some form of documentation. One might think that such an act is generous, but it creates an opportunity for the borrower to sin by not returning the loan.

In other words, be aware of one another’s weaknesses and blind-spots and take precautions to protect people from themselves. One might have expected that the need to have witnesses during a loan transaction would arise as a protection of the lender, to ensure that his funds are returned. But no, here the emphasis is on the lender’s need to protect the borrower from wrongful action.

The structure of the verse speaks to this emphasis on human weakness. The verse does not say, “Do not place an obstacle before a blind person,” but “Before a blind person, do not place an obstacle.” In other words, first condition yourself to being aware of the blindness of others, of their special needs and difficulties, and then you will know how not to place an obstacle before them.

Among other things, then, kedushah, holiness, involves connectedness with others and concern for their special weaknesses. The Holy One Himself modeled such behavior. On the way out of Egypt, He led the people the back route for He knew that they would become fearful at the sight of war and want to return to Egypt (Ex 13:17). Worrying over the weaknesses of others is a part of divine holiness.

Later in this parsha, the Torah reminds us to rebuke one another in order not to “incur any guilt because of him” (Lev 19:17). The Sefat Emet reads the Hebrew, lo tisa alav het, literally, “do not carry on him a sin,” as meaning “do not throw the sin totally onto him.” Consider your own culpability in his sin as well. When one person is doing the wrong thing, we who are part of his community are somehow all a part of that wrong, all culpable for not having created an environment without obstacles, for not having protected him from himself.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Passover and Inclusion

Redemption does not happen alone in Judaism, not in solitude or silent contemplation, but in joyous family and communal celebration. Our Seders follow the model of the first Passover celebration in Egypt, in which the paschal sacrifice was eaten in groups. Haggadah means telling. We are talkers. We experience redemption by talking to each other, and for such an experience, we cannot be alone.

Nor is this an elite holiday. All are to be included. Moshe told Pharaoh, bena’areinu uvezkeineinu neileikh, “with our youth and our elderly we will go.” Pharaoh thought that only the middle age males should go to worship God, but Moshe understood that this religion was for everyone, that redemption is not complete unless all parts of the nation are involved.

The Haggadah makes this point clear right from the start. Its entire first section is concerned with defining its audience in as broad a way as possible. We begin in Aramaic (ha lahma anya) -- which for years was the lingua franca in the Jewish world -- as a way to open up the Seder to all, whether or not they are speakers of Hebrew. Ha lahma anya, we say. “This is the bread of poverty (or affliction) that our fathers ate in Egypt.” And what lesson do we learn from this memory of our humble origins? Openness and inclusion. Kol dikhfin yete veyekhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy, come and join in our Passover celebration. The Seder is for everyone, the poor, the rich, and anyone who has some need, whether financial, emotional or social. The important word here is kol, ALL.

Nor is this a holiday for the scholarly elite. First, a story is told about a group of learned rabbinic sages who stayed up all night discussing the exodus, but then, immediately afterwards, come the 4 sons, one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not even know how to ask. The Seder is for all these audiences at once. It has passages of intricate Torah discussion as well as folk songs, prayers and simple statements. It has words and it also has actions like the dipping of food into salt water, the eating of bitter herbs and matzah, the leaning to the left. There are those at the Seder, like my 3-year-old, who don’t just want to talk about the exodus experience, but actually want to feel it, to act it out. The Seder is meant to include all these groups.

There is one more group that is included in our Seders, and this group, too, is essential for our experience of redemption – all those many generations of Jews who have celebrated Passover before us, in other places and other circumstances, in Poland and in Russia, in Ethiopia and in Spain, in comfort and freedom and in war and persecution. Over and again, we refer to them. Bekhol dor vador, we say. “In every generation.” There is that word kol, “all,” again. In every generation one must feel that she has left Egypt. In every generation, we have had oppressors and been saved from them. In every generation the Seder has been celebrated, and our own celebration connects to this kol, links us through time to this “all.”

What does it mean to be redeemed from mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt? The word has famously been connected to the word tzar, narrow. How can we be redeemed from the narrow places in our lives, from the narrow limits of our individual selves and perspectives? Through a celebration which brings together old and young, learned and ignorant, pious and doubting, those alive and those no longer alive. Together we form a kol that is klal yisrael, the entirety of Israel. It is only when we sit and talk and eat with each other that we move beyond our narrow selves and experience redemption.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Parashat Vayikra: On Sacrifices and Intimacy

This week we start a new book of the Torah, Vayikra, or as the rabbis called it, Torat Kohanim, the teaching of the priests, a name which is similar in meaning to the English “Leviticus,” the book of Levites/priests. This new book. whose subject is holiness and purity, begins with instructions concerning the sacrificial system.

While this book is generally given short shrift by modern readers, it was a favorite of the classical rabbis, the first book in their curriculum for young students. In its placement as the middle book of the 5 books of the Torah, it also represents the heart of the Torah.

And yet, here we are, in 2010, reading a book about animal sacrifices. How can we possibly relate?

Let’s begin with the first few verses. Moshe is instructed by God to say the following to the Israelites: Adam ki yakriv mikem korban lashem. “When a person brings close from among you an offering to God,” then, says the verse, it should be from the following animals, . . . What is strange about this verse, as many commentators have noted, is its use and placement of the word mikem, “from among you.” There is no need for this word, and the word is also placed strangely not after the word for “person,” Adam, but rather after the word for “bring close,” yakriv. “When you bring close from among you,” the verse says. What does this mean?

Rabbenu Behayei suggests that the word comes to warn us against human sacrifice. “When a person wants to bring an offering from you, i.e. from the human population,” don’t do it. Instead, bring an animal. The Talmud (Sukkah 30a) learns from the word mikem that sacrifices brought from stolen goods are not allowed; the offering must be from you, i.e. belonging to you, and not to someone else.

My favorite interpretation is that of the Abravanel and Sforno, both of whom see the word mikem as referring to the giving of oneself to God. You should bring from yourselves, meaning a piece of yourself, of your energy and passion, to the service of God. In a way, this interpretation picks up on the previous one, concerning stolen goods; the offering needs to be yours, not just in the sense of ownership, but also in the sense of coming from inside yourself. This interpretation is also an interesting twist of the warning against human sacrifice. On the one hand, human sacrifice is prohibited, but on the other hand, it is precisely the sacrifice of something human, some piece of yourself, which is required. Animals take your place, but are meant to represent you, with their blood and guts, so that you, too, feel that you are bringing some part of yourself to God.

Why? Why bring an animal or a piece of yourself to God? In English, the word for such offerings is “sacrifice.” In Hebrew, it is korban. The root of korban is closeness. Yes, the call is for a sacrifice, is for the bringing of something precious from you to God, but the goal is not asceticism, the sacrifice of some earthly good to God, but kirvah, closeness, intimacy with God.

Such intimacy cannot be experienced without sacrifice, without giving some piece of yourself. One holds dear the people to whom one gives. It is for this reason that parents feel so close to their children; the constant acts of giving and sacrifice lead to tight bonds. God gave us the framework of sacrificial offerings not in order to feed Him, Heaven forbid, but in order to give humans a chance, through a system of constant sacrificial giving, to feel close to Him.

We don’t have animals to offer up anymore. But there are other ways of giving, other ways of sacrificing ourselves in the service of God, other forms of mesirus nefesh. As the famous rabbinic saying goes, lefum tsara, agra, “According to the pain is the gain.” The Torah’s demands can be quite taxing and overwhelming, in terms of time, energy and resources. Anyone who has prepared for Passover or walked to synagogue on a cold wet Shabbat can attest to the sacrifice involved. At the same time, it is precisely the taxing nature of the system which makes it so rewarding, which draws one in, turning a “sacrifice” into a korban, a hardship into a source of intimacy and connection.

Perhaps the book of Vayikra begins with animal sacrifices in order to teach us, first and foremost, how to give of ourselves. The book begins with these offerings to God, but at the heart of this middle book are also instructions concerning how we treat others, concerning the gifts we are to leave for the poor in our fields. Generosity is a practice, and the sacrificial system habituates one to this practice of giving, giving to God, giving to the priests who depend on such offerings for their livelihood, and giving to the needy. Such giving, both of financial gifts and of oneself, mikem, is the indeed the heart of the Torah.