Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Parashat Mikets and Chanukah: On Becoming a Vessel

Yosef the dreamer turns into Yosef the dream interpreter in the end of last week’s parsha (interpreting the dreams of the baker and the butler) and the beginning of this week’s parsha (interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams). This change signals an important transformation in Yosef; he has learned not to talk, but to listen, not to focus on himself, but to focus on others.

Through his experiences in the pit and in jail and as a slave, Yosef’s natural haughtiness and self-engrossment were challenged and he went through a process of what the Hasidic masters call hitbatlut, self-negation. This is not self-hatred, which is merely the flip side of self-love, and still entails a kind of egocentrism. No, this is the willing letting go of ego, the process of understanding one’s small place in the universe and the realization of other larger powers. Yosef began by speaking about himself – “I was in the center,” he says of his sheaf of wheat. But in the end, when Pharaoh asks him to interpret his dream, what Yosef says is: Beladay, “Not I!” Elokim ya’aneh et shlom Pharaoh, “God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Not I. Yosef has emptied himself of ego.

In the process, Yosef turns himself into a kli, a vessel of God. He is able to interpret these dreams because he is able to channel God’s wisdom. Pharaoh sees this and says, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” By emptying himself, Yosef makes room for the spirit of God, becomes an open vessel ready to be filled by the divine spirit.

A full container cannot be filled. If one is filled with oneself, there is no room for God. When a destitute woman approaches the prophet Elisha in the book of Kings, he tells her to gather as many empty containers, kelim, as possible (II Kings 4). Only then can a miraculous oil be poured into them. The first step is creating space, turning oneself into a kli, an empty vessel.

The symbol of Chanukah is the menorah. What is the menorah other than a kli, a vessel to hold oil or candles, a vessel to contain the lights that we light. We are like the menorah, says the Sefat Emet, a kli for holding light, divine light. When humans were created, God breathed life into their nostrils. We are containers filled with life and light from above. It is our task to empty ourselves sufficiently to be able to receive this light.

In a famous disagreement about how to light the Chanukah lights, Bet Shammai, unlike Bet Hillel whom we follow, prescribed the lighting of 8 candles on the first night, followed by a decreasing number each night until a single candle was lit on the last night. The Sefat Emet suggests that Bet Shammai understood the need for hitbatlut, self-negation, as part of the spiritual process. There is a need to reduce, to empty oneself further and further. Bet Hillel, who has us gradually increase from one candle to 8, is focused on the filling side, the outpouring of light in greater and greater quantities into our menorahs and us. Shammai understood, on the other hand, that in order to receive such light, we must also practice a kind of self-reduction, gradually emptying ourselves, like Yosef did, of our natural self-engrossments, and turning ourselves into vessels, vessels that are able to hear the dreams of others, vessels that are open to receiving and transmitting the divine light in this world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Parashat Vayeshev: Hope at the Bottom of the Pit

How quickly and how far does the family of Yaakov descend in this parsha! Hatred festers unchecked among the brothers, and turns to violence against Yosef who is thrown down into a pit and sold “down” to Egypt as a slave. The Torah draws a parallel between this descent of Yosef’s (hurad) and that of Yehudah, who “goes down” (vayered) from his brothers in search of a wife and lands in his own trouble. Indeed, Yosef’s descent leads the whole family to descend; in the short term, it leaves his father in a permanent state of mourning and his brothers with an uneasy sense of guilt, and in the long term, it literally brings the rest of the family to descend to Egypt as well, and eventually, to be enslaved there for hundreds of years.

The midrash characterizes the family’s state of mind this way: “Yosef was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting [presumably out of distress over his enslavement]; Reuven was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting [either out of remorse for not managing to rescue Yosef or out of remorse for sleeping with his step-mother]; and Yaakov was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting [in mourning for Yosef].” What a bunch! All depressed and regretful and suffering.

But the midrash does not end there. It turns to God: “And the Holy One blessed be He was occupied with creating the light of the Messianic King.” The light of the Messianic King?! The midrash is referring to the messianic line of King David, which is traced back to Peretz, one of the twins born in this parsha to Tamar and Yehudah.

Amidst all this descent and sackcloth, the seed of the future Messiah is born! The Yehudah/Tamar story takes place right in the middle of the Yosef story. On one side of it, Yosef is thrown into the pit by his brothers, and on its other side, Yosef is thrown into another pit, the pit of jail, by Potiphar. If we imagine the parsha as one large pit, then the middle, the very bottom, is the story of Yehudah and Tamar. It is out of the very bottom of that pit of misery and descent that a tiny light of future hope emerges.

The Slonmier Rebbe, in his work, Netivot Shalom, speaks about this phenomemon as the kusta deheyuta, the “tiny speck of life” contained in a seed when it is about to sprout and blossom. A seed must first rot and almost completely disintegrate into the earth before it can sprout, says the Netivot Shalom. Out of almost complete absence comes this tiny spark of future life.

Chanukah’s lights, lit in the darkest part of the year, contain a similar message. Out of the blackest of nights will come light, out of the hardest of times will come life, the tiny inkling of change and hope for the future. Like Yaakov’s family, we all go through periods of intense darkness in our lives, periods where it seems that there is no bottom to the pit of despair, that the pain will simply go on forever. The seed of the Messiah, born in the pit of Yaakov’s family’s darkest moments, is a reminder not to give up hope, that it is in fact from within this darkness that seeds of future life are sprouted.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Parashat Vayishlach: What I Like About Yaakov

Avraham is someone I could never be. He is a great model of faith, but his example is difficult to emulate. He is never scared or doubtful. He never cries or cries out. He is stoic, disciplined and obedient. That’s why I’m glad we have Yaakov as an ancestor as well.

Yaakov is emotional. He cries when he meets Rachel. The commentaries try to explain why, but the Torah gives no reason, and perhaps there was no specific rational one. Isn’t that the way it is sometimes, all the emotion of days on end welling up and coming out unexpectedly? He cries again, later, inconsolably, when he thinks that Yosef has died.

He cries, and he also experiences great fear. First, after his ladder dream, he awakes and has a great fear. And second, in the beginning of this week’s parsha, when he hears that his brother – who wanted to kill Yaakov when they last met – is approaching him with 400 men, the Torah again tells us – Vayira Yaakov me’od vayetzer lo -- Yaakov was greatly frightened and distressed. He has intense emotions. The Torah says vayetzer lo, literally, “It was narrow for him.” He is in straits, suffering deeply.

The commentaries wonder about this expression of fear. Why was he fearful when God had promised him protection? Didn’t he trust in God’s promise? They explain away his fear in various ways – he was worried maybe he’d sinned and so the promise didn’t apply anymore – but it seems to me that the Torah is telling us that our ancestor, Yaakov, at least occasionally, had doubts. He was not an Avraham, stalwart and unwavering in his faith. There were moments when he was not sure.

And out of this doubt, out of this confusion and deep distress and struggle and fear, out of all those very human emotions, arose a new kind of religious outlook. For Yaakov is the first of the patriarchs whose passionate prayer we hear. “O God of my father Abraham . . . O Lord, who said to me . . . deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother . . .” (32:10ff).

Avraham never asked God for anything, except to save others, in Sodom, and there he did it methodically, rationally, politely. Yitzhak entreated God over Rivkah’s barrenness, but there is no description of the emotion that went with it, nor do we hear the words. But Yaakov, Yaakov is bursting with emotion, so that when he prays, it is a shavat ani¸ “cry of the afflicted.” He opens his soul and pours it out to God.

That is Yaakov’s way, not a clear, calm one like Avraham’s, but a struggling, searching one full of turmoil and emotional upheaval. Yaakov receives a name change and a body change (the wrenching of his hip by the angel) in this parsha just as Avraham received a name change and a body change (circumcision) years earlier. But if Avraham’s mark was a symbol of covenant and obedience, Yaakov’s is a symbol of struggle and strife. Even with God, he is locked in struggle.

They each have their place. We can hope at times to experience a little bit of the peace of Avraham’s faith, but we shouldn’t stop ourselves from pursuing the Yaakov route as well, the turmoil, the brokenness, the doubt, the struggle, and the cry, because this, too, or perhaps, this, especially, is a route to the divine.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Parashat Vayetze: On the Accompaniment of Angels

This week’s parsha is framed by angels. At its start, as Yaakov leaves home, running away from his angry brother, he lies down and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder. The story then unfolds about his adventures away from home, in Haran -- his years of work for Lavan, his marriages and the birth of his many children. And then, at the end of this saga, on his way back home, Yaakov again encounters angels of God.

Angels at the beginning and angels at the end. Angels to my right and angels to my left. These are angels of accompaniment. They surround and accompany the story just as they surround and accompany Yaakov on his lonely, perilous journey.

But what good do they do him? What good does it do Yaakov to have had this vision of God and His angels at the start and end of his journey? God promises him protection in that initial dream, but other than one single instance at the end of the story when God warns Lavan not to harm Yaakov, we don’t see that Yaakov receives much benefit from the accompaniment of these angels.

Yaakov goes through an extremely difficult phase of his life here, symbolized by the repeated use of the rock in his story. He leaves home, apparently with no possessions -- why else would he use a rock as a pillow – and must work to earn his keep and his wives from Lavan instead of paying for them with gifts as his grandfather’s servant did years before with Rivkah. Work and hardship. Those are the operative words in Yaakov’s narrative. There always seems to be a rock blocking his way, as he is tricked by Lavan over wives and salary, toiling for 20 long years away from home.

So, I ask again, what good did those accompanying angels do him if they didn’t save him from such hardship?

Apparently, the purpose of accompanying angels, of a sense of divine accompaniment, is not to relieve hardship. Life is hard and angels don’t change that. What accompanying angels do is give one the strength to persevere in the face of such hardship. Right after Yaakov’s initial encounter with the angels in his dream, the Torah says, Vayisa Yaakov raglav vayelech. “Yaakov lifted his legs and went.” Rashi, citing the midrash, explains, “Once he heard the good news that he was promised protection his heart lifted his legs and it became easy to walk.”

His heart lifted his legs. Those angels couldn’t change the fact that Yaakov had a difficult journey to walk. But they could help his heart lift his legs to the task, could give him the faith and confidence and security to proceed undaunted. They could “frame” his hardship, help him see it through the lens of faith, as part of a story that ultimately has a good end. And this knowledge, this belief that all will ultimately work out for the better, this knowledge helped Yaakov persevere through it all. It gave him the energy, the excitement and the optimism to lift a huge rock off a well, again and again.

If we, too, have angels accompanying us – and sometimes I think that we do -- they won’t protect us from life’s hardships any more than they protected Yaakov. What they will do is lend us the confidence and security to carry on with those heavy rocks, help our hearts lift our legs to the journey with a spring in our step.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Parashat Chaye Sarah and Thanksgiving: On Being Blesed with "Everything"

Thanksgiving offers us an opportunity to find a sense of thankfulness inside ourselves. Avraham is a good model. In this week’s parsha we read:

Hashem berakh et Avraham bakol.

“God blessed Avraham with kol, everything.” (24:2). Everything? All? How can anybody have everything? And moreover, what exactly did God add to Avraham in this week’s parsha that he didn’t have before? He already had a great deal of material wealth last week and he already had two sons. If anything, Avraham sustains a loss in the beginning of this week’s parsha with the death of his wife Sarah. What does it mean to say that God blessed Avraham with kol?

God blessed Avraham with the feeling of kol -- a kind of fullness and a kind of stillness that made him feel completely satisfied, as if he did have “everything.”

Avraham attained this sense of kol at the end of his life, after experiencing the near loss of his son and the loss of his wife. There is some deep connection between loss and fullness here, between a sense of the fragility of life and an appreciation for its very richness.

This is a parsha surrounded by death; at its start Sarah dies and at its end Avraham and Yishmael die. In the middle is life and continuity, the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. This is the way we live, our lives surrounded by the shadow of death, by the knowledge of the limited nature of our time here. The trick is to use this knowledge, as Avraham did, to somehow help us feel the blessing of kol, to help us appreciate the richness of the moments of this life we do have. If life went on forever, nothing would have any meaning. It is the potential loss which makes each moment so exquisite and full and thick.

It is for this reason that our children elicit in us such deep emotions; we are aware that their childhood will pass, and so, at odd moments when we are with them, we feel a fullness of heart that borders on nostalgia for the present, a sense of how very rich and complete our lives are, a sense that at this particular moment, we do have kol, everything one could possibly ever want. It is the knowledge that this moment will pass that makes it so intense and full.

Such moments of feeling kol are not easy to come by, though. Avraham was blessed with them from above, and indeed, they are by their nature of a divine source. We are all headed eventually to the place where Sarah, Avraham and Yishmael go in this parsha. We are fleeting; we are a kind of nothingness. Feeling that sense of kol is a way of tapping into the divine, the eternal. It is God who is All. Nachmanides quotes a kabbalistic source that compares this kol to a tree created by God which nourishes and provides everything in the world to all. When we feel a sense of kol, we are touching -- we are a part of -- this tree.

In the grace after meals, we first call God, hazan et hakol, “the nourisher of all (kol)” and then we ask Him to bless us as He blessed our three patriarchs, all of whom were blessed with kol: bakol, mikol, kol. We, too, ask for such a blessing – not the blessing of actually having everything, but the blessing of feeling that we do, of feeling the richness and fullness and deep blessedness of our short lives. To ask God for such a blessing while we are thanking Him for the blessing of food is, in a sense, enacting our own request, teaching ourselves, through small acts like the grace after meals, to feel how very rich and full our lives already are, to be aware of the fact that God already has blessed us with kol.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Parashat Vayera: On Divine Revelation

This week’s parsha begins with a divine appearance to Avraham: Vayera elav Hashem. “The Lord appeared to him.” We normally think – that kind of revelation happened only in biblical times; it is closed to us.

But the Torah is eternal; maybe there is something to learn here about our own experience of the divine.

Immediately after the proclamation that “The Lord appeared” to Avraham, the Torah tells us that Avraham lifted his eyes and saw 3 “men” in the distance. The relationship between these two events – the divine appearance and the visitation of the three men/angels -- has been debated for generations. Were they two separate events or one? Was Avraham’s vision of the three people – guests to invite into his home – actually the content of his vision of God or merely coinciding occurrences?

The two stories are woven together in a strange and complicated way. Even at the end of the narrative, as Avraham walks his visitors out on their way, God is at the same time informing him of his plans for Sodom. The narrative switches back and forth between the three visitors and God in a seamless way, giving one the mixed up feeling of a dream, with one character blending into another. The implication is that for Avraham, the two entities, whether or not they were identical, were certainly interrelated in some profound way.

Avraham saw God by seeing (and helping) other people. His vision of God did not take place in solitude, but as part of his interactions with others. At the same moment that he made himself open to receiving visitors into his home, he also opened himself to receiving God’s presence. The experience of helping others and also of being able to receive from others – as he received the strangers’ good message here—made him feel the divine presence on this earth.

My therapist once pointed to a particular person in my life and said – She was an angel sent to help you understand something new about yourself and the world. People sometimes are angels. Can we sit in our open tents ready to greet them and to hear their divine messages? Can we see that our interactions with others -- our ability to give to the other, to hear the other, to receive from the other -- these are all ways of seeing and experiencing God?

It’s like the joke about the flood. A man sat in his house during a flood and waited patiently for God to deliver him. A boat came by and the people in it called – Come on up. But the man refused, insisting that God would save him. The water rose and he went up to the second floor of the house. Again a boat came and again he refused. Third floor and the same thing happened, until finally he drowned. He went to heaven and said to God angrily, Why didn’t you save me? God said: What do you think all those boats were?

Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure it’s impossible to see God anymore.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Parashat Lekh-Lekha: Our Own Journey

People often wonder: Why did God choose Avraham? Unlike Noah, we don’t hear that he is a great tzaddik, “a righteous person,” before God speaks to him. So why did God choose him?

God didn’t choose Avraham. Avraham chose God, is the Sefat Emet’s answer. Notice that God does not call Avraham by name in that first call: lekh lekha. “Go forth,” He says simply. (Later, when their relationship develops – in the story of the binding of Isaac – God will call him by name, but here the call is more universal.) This lekh lekha call of God’s is present at all times and to all people, says the Sefat Emet. It is just a question of whether you choose to hear it and respond. Avraham was the first one who did.

This call is still relevant, in fact, essential. The Torah has been around for thousands of years now. We have a strong tradition we pass down from parent to child. And yet there is something that cannot be passed down. Each person, as an individual, needs to choose to heed the call. We should feel that we are each, like Avraham, discoverers of God.

Avraham was asked to leave his homeland, his birthplace and his parental home. We who are brought up in the tradition have no need to do this in order to find God. Or do we? Every person must make an Avraham-like journey. Tradition can be passed on, but faith in God, a religious feeling, cannot. It must be discovered anew inside each person.

And it can only be discovered by leaving something behind, says the Sefat Emet, by leaving behind the entrapments of our normal, everyday life. There is something about routine that makes one unthinking and unseeing. We need to somehow shed the impediments of the norm in order to allow ourselves to become a bri’ah hadashah, “a new being.”

This was Avraham’s strength, his ability to take a journey, to grow and change. He is not like Noah, a ready-made tzaddik, but he becomes greater than Noah over time, because of his ability to transform. By the the end of this week’s parsha, he is truly “a new being;” he has transformed his body – through the brit milah – and his name – from Avram to Avraham.

Avraham’s journey is a long one. He does not simply arrive in the land and it is over. The parsha details his many stops along the way. And the midrash names 10 different trials he had to overcome over the course of his lifetime. This command of lekh lekha, of walking or going forth, was an ever-present command of continued transformation, of never staying in the same spiritual spot.

Are we such travelers? Do we have the strength to shed the bonds that hold us in place, that keep us in the past? Do we hear and heed the call to go forth, to keep changing, ever becoming new beings, ever learning to see the world and God afresh, like our first ancestor? As the Sefat Emet says, the call is there. It’s just a matter of learning to hear it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Parashat Noah: Finding Favor in the Eyes of God and Man

The Moroccan havdalah includes the recitation of a biblical verse about Noah, the main character of this week’s parsha. VeNoah matza chen be’eynei Hashem. “Noah found favor in the eyes of God” (Gen 6:8, the last verse of last week’s parsha). The verse is chanted by the havdalah leader, and the listeners respond: Ken nimtza chen vesekhel tov be’eynei Elokim ve’Adam. “So, too, may we find favor and understanding in the eyes of God and man.” It’s interesting, that added word at the end, Ve’Adam. We want to be like Noah, but we don’t want to find favor only in the eyes of God, but also in the eyes of our fellow humans. Herein lies the crux of the Noah story.

Noah was a loner, for good and for bad. God chose him because Noah was able, as Bet Shraga teacher Morah Yisraela taught her second graders this week, to be a righteous person even when those around him were not, not a simple matter. The flood is a good image for Noah’s generation. He lived in a flood of evil, but somehow managed not to be swept away by the current, to stay morally afloat in a sea of wrongdoing, to keep himself perfect and pure, tamim, like an island onto himself, like the little ark-island he eventually inhabited.

But good is not meant to be done alone. Noah’s good is shut inside a sealed ark, inside himself, and so, in some way it eventually becomes suffocated and twisted. When he comes out of the ark, he seeks only his own intimacy; he becomes drunk and “uncovers himself within his tent.” The verb is vayitgal, a reflexive verb; he is closed in upon himself, doing the uncovering of himself to himself.

Such good cannot last. Our own internal good is partly a reflection of the goodness of those around us. Noah found favor in God’s eyes, but he did not find favor in the eyes of those around him. Finding favor is work. It is partly a matter of finding the good in other people, seeing those buried good points in others (nekudot tovot, in Rav Nachman’s terms) which in turn helps them see the good within us, and so a cycle of good is created.

Avraham is the model of this cycle of goodness. The midrash speaks of the many people he influenced and converted. If the symbol of Noah is a sealed ark, closed against a sea of evil, the symbol of Avraham is an open tent, drawing others in around him to the pursuit of good.

Later, when we hear of Avraham’s nephew Lot in Sodom, we will think again of Noah. Lot, too, had a certain righteousness about him, but one that was purely limited to himself. The evil around him was so great that the only way for him to keep it out was literally to shut the door on the hordes of evil-doers at his doorstep, waiting to come flood his home like the waters outside Noah’s ark.

There is something to be said for a closed door approach to evil. Noah stands as a model of great moral fiber and fortitude in his ability to withstand evil. And there are moments – Nazi Germany comes to mind -- when such strength of character is required. May we not be tested with such moments. The general work of the world, though, seems to lie mostly in the Avraham open door approach, the attempt to find good in the eyes and souls of those around us, the attempt to share our goodness with that of others and thereby increase good in the world. Ken nimtza khen be’eynei Elokim ve’Adam. So, too, may we find favor in the eyes of God and man.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Simchat Torah: On Imperfection

“Imperfection and incompleteness are the certain lot of all creative workers,” wrote H.G. Wells. This is how we feel when we read the last words of the Torah – on the upcoming holiday of Simchat Torah – which describe Moshe’s death scene, standing atop a mountain looking out into the Promised Land which he will never enter. This man has accomplished so much; he took the people out of Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and through 40 years of desert journeys, and gave and taught them the Torah. And yet we leave Moshe with a sense of incompleteness; he has not achieved perfection; he will never arrive at that utopian destination.

This is the human state. But not the divine state. Immediately upon reading the end of the book of Deuteronomy, we begin the Torah again; we read of God’s perfect, orderly creation of this world in 7 days. There is perfection in the world; there is completeness; it is just not ours.

What are we to do then? Give up? If we can’t be perfect, is there no point? We return to the cycle of Genesis and hear once again how quickly the first humans made a mess of God’s perfect world. We can identify. Here we are at the end of a season of high religious activity. We promised ourselves we’d do better. Maybe we’ve changed a little, but have we arrived? Have we achieved our goals? In the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur eve, what we say is not “Nullify the vows of last year,” but rather, “Nullify the vows of the coming year.” We know already that we will not achieve them. We are hopelessly incapable of doing it completely right.

The figure of Moshe begs the question of imperfection, but it also provides some suggestions of how and why to nonetheless proceed. First, Moshe is the final and best example in the Torah of a successful divine-human partnership. Maybe alone we are imperfect, but look at what can be achieved together with God! The Torah is brought to earth. Moshe momentarily overcame his human imperfections by being a person who could stand atop a mountain –between heaven and earth – and catch glimpses of the Promised Land, glimpses of the divine. Where is our mountaintop? Shabbat and the Torah, each a piece or a taste of divine utopia, a taste that allows us, too, to move beyond our human imperfections.

Second, Moshe did not pursue this relationship alone but as a leader. His concern was not just his own relationship with the divine, but the continuity of this relationship, its transmission to others and to future generations. The Torah ends with the words asher asah Moshe le’eynei benei Yisrael, “which Moshe did before the eyes of the people of Israel.” His actions were “before their eyes,” or “for their eyes,” for their sakes, for their understanding.

And so we face our looming sense of incompleteness and imperfection this time of year with two tools – a sense of human-divine partnership and a commitment to transmit the Torah to future generations. Alone we are imperfect and incomplete, but together – together with God and with each other, thoughout the generations – we are somehow complete. We become, like the joining of the end of the Torah to the beginning of the Torah, not a line that ends, but a circle that has no end and no beginning, a part of eternity.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sukkot: On the Joy of Flying

In the desert, the sukkot were meant to provide the Israelites with protection from the elements, the sun and the wind. But today, when we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot and move out of our well-built, well-insulated homes to a shabby hut outdoors, it’s not so much protection that we feel, as openness, a breaking down of barriers. The skhakh roof above, mandated to have holes in it for seeing the stars, symbolizes this openness.

We need this feeling of openness. We are generally very constrained in our lives, bound in by our bodies’ limitations and by the obligations of work, community and home, and especially, by time. We have to be at a certain place at a certain time and there is no way to get there any faster than traffic or our feet will allow us. It often seems – and is true – that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get done everything we need to get done.

And so this holiday comes to break open the paradigm, to remind us not to let all those constraints come in the way of seeing the stars, of taking the time to think what this life is all about, what we are other than physical bodies taking up time and space in this world.

Such a glimpse of the stars, such a sense of divinity/spirituality, such a glimpse gives us intense joy. It is the like the joy of biking, the sense of a sudden release from the normal constraints of one’s physical body, of being lifted off of one’s feet, defying gravity and the plodding nature of our normal pace, and simply flying. Have you ever had a dream about flying in the air? The feeling is of a joyful release from constraint, a sense of doing the physically impossible, of freedom, of the incredible power of the spirit over the body.

Flying is indeed physically impossible. But sitting in a sukkah is not. It gives us a chance to sit within the confines of walls, to dwell within our physical constraints, and yet still see the stars, still feel the power of something above.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Yom Kippur: Who is Compassionate?

Hashem, Hashem, Kel Rahum Vehanun. “O God, O God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and One who cleanses.”

We say – or sing – these words countless times during the Yom Kippur service. They are a list of the 13 attributes which God revealed to Moshe as part of the forgiveness and healing process after the sin of the Golden Calf.

What are we doing when we recite these attributes? On the one hand, we are describing God, reminding God on this day of judgment that it is His basic nature to be compassionate and forgiving, that, as He sits on His throne of Judgment, He should judge us kindly.

I wonder, though, if we aren’t also describing ourselves, or rather, setting up for ourselves a model of the virtues we should strive to attain. God is not the only one involved in judgment. We as humans are constantly evaluating and judging ourselves and others. Perhaps on this day of judgment, when we ask God to take a kind approach, we are also asking this of ourselves, in imitation of Him.

This is where Jonah went wrong. God asked him to be an instrument of divine compassion in the world, to reflect the tenderness God feels toward His creatures, but Jonah wanted only to be an instrument of divine judgment. It is particularly on the Day of Judgment that we are asked, like Jonah, to learn to feel --- as God does -- tenderly and compassionately toward our fellows.

The task is not an easy one. We are all like the priest Eli – from the haftarah of the first day of Rosh HaShanah—who looked at Hannah standing in the sanctuary moving her lips but not making a sound, and presumed the worst, that she was drunk, when she was in fact fervently crying out to God in pain. We – like Eli – stand on the outside judging others, when maybe what looks bad is really not, when maybe – usually – we don’t know the whole story, don’t know the inner woes of our fellows’ hearts.

The key is to be, like God, rahum, compassionate or sympathetic. Our fellows’ offenses are often a sign of some inner disturbance or insecurity. Instead of taking offense and becoming angry and judgmental, we can ask ourselves why the offense was made, what troubled thought must have preceded it, and thus, like God, learn to move from “the throne of judgment” to “the throne of sympathy.”

Good judgment begins at home, in how we treat ourselves. Rav Nachman says that we need to learn to look in others as well as in ourselves for the nekudah tovah, the “good point,” the single good thing inside us. Yes, maybe we are full of faults and shortcomings, errors and misdeeds. But to focus on those is to give free reign to the waiting evil of sadness and depression. Instead, we should -- like God – look to the good, not to the Accuser, and find within us those points of good.

O God, O God, compassionate and gracious. O human, O human, be compassionate and gracious as well.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Parashat Nitzavim/Vayelekh and Rosh HaShanah: On Return

A baby in her mother’s womb is taught the whole Torah, according to the Talmud. Then, when she is about to touch the air of the world, an angel strikes her mouth and she forgets it (Niddah 30b).

She forgets, but not entirely. They say that babies develop a taste for the foods that their mothers ate while they were in utero. If a baby has tasted Torah in utero, maybe he retains some special sense, some special feeling and yearning for Torah so that when he learns Torah later in life, the experience has a kind of déjà vu quality. It feels not so much like something new, but like a return to an old familiar place.

Return. Teshuva. This is the Hebrew word describing the process of change referred to in English as “repentance.” But as the Hebrew term implies, the process does not merely look to the past as a place of wrongdoing – a place from which to repent of one’s sins and move forward to a bright new future; the past also becomes a place to return to, an old home.

Teshuva is the process of finding inside oneself that pre-birth place of Torah. It is not the discovery of something new. It is the uncovering of something very old residing inside oneself, a divine spark, the point of contact between oneself and the oldest Being on earth.

Sometimes we have chance sightings of this eternal side of ourselves – whether through a Torah insight, a song or a walk in the woods. How do we know we have hit truth when we read/hear/see/feel it? Because it feels achingly familiar. The best ideas, the ones that feel most true to us, are the ones that somehow express something we already knew but never articulated. In that moment of insight, what we feel is not exactly a sense of novelty or discovery, but a sense of familiarity, of return, of the uncovering of some deep old forgotten truth.

And so if you’re looking to connect to Torah, you don’t have to go far, says this week’s parsha. The Torah is “not in the heavens” nor “over the sea,” but rather karov eleikha hadavar me’od, “the thing is very close to you . . . in your mouth and in your heart.” Look inside yourself. Return to home. It is like the man who goes searching all over the world for treasure only to find that it is buried in his own backyard. We are restless searchers, constantly climbing and reaching, looking for the miracle cure everywhere but inside ourselves, where it is and always has been.

It’s not easy to find that inner point to return to. As the midrash says of Hagar – who didn’t see the well in the desert until God showed it to her -- “We are all blind until God opens our eyes.” That is the function of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. The blasts that broke down the walls of Jericho thousands of years ago are now called to break down our own exterior barriers – fear and insecurity, stress and anxiety -- to break down those barriers and uncover that point of peace and divine connection that is buried inside us, a faint in utero memory.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parashat Ki Tavo: On Joy and Arrival

Ki tavo, “When you arrive” in the land. What happens when you finally arrive at your longed-for destination, when you are full and fulfilled, when you have conquered and settled the land, and reaped the first harvest of your labors? What happens when you prosper and succeed? The parsha begins and ends with this sense of arrival, ki tavo at its beginning, and vatavo’u el hamakom hazeh, “When you have arrived at this place” (29:6) at its end. What happens when we arrive? How are we to deal with success?

The answer: Be joyful. The parsha begins with three ceremonies, all of which have explicit or implicit commands to be sameach, “joyful.” When you bring your bikurim, your first fruits, to the priest, the Torah says, Vesamahta, “And you shall enjoy all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you” (26:11). When you tithe your produce, the Torah tells us you may not eat it when you are in mourning, implying that joy is the necessary companion to tithing. Also, when the tither proclaims: “I have done just as You commanded me” what he means to say, according to the midrash, is: samachti vesimachti bo, “I have enjoyed and caused others joy through it [the tithed produce]” (Sifre Dvarim 303). Finally, in the ceremony marking Israel’s arrival in the land, the Torah tells us to “rejoice before the Lord your God,” vesamachta lifnei Hashem Elokekha (27:7). “When you arrive,” when you reap your harvest, one of your primary obligations to God is to enjoy yourself, to take joy in your prosperity.

That isn’t hard, you say. It is easy to be joyful when you are prosperous and successful. Ah, but the Torah is not so sure. The second half of the parsha deals with the tochachah, the “rebuke,” a detailed description of the horrific calamities that will befall the people should they disobey God’s covenant. And what is the cause of such calamities? “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything” (28:47). People are capable of having everything and still not being joyful and glad.

Why? First, there is the question of whether one feels that he has in fact “arrived,” that he is satisfied and prosperous, that he has an abundant harvest. No one has a perfect life. There are problems and difficulties, illnesses and set-backs. Sometimes we lose sight of our essential blessedness amidst all the focus on these problems. We keep thinking tomorrow is the day we will arrive when in fact, we are already there, already full of blessing and abundance.

Second, we are too busy to be joyful. All of life’s little “blessings” take an immense amount of work. The more blessings – both at home and at work – the more stress, the less emotional space there is to be joyful.

Third, we feel too guilty to be joyful. We look at Jewish history, perhaps at our immediate ancestors’ suffering, and also, at the current suffering of others in the world, and we have survivor’s guilt. We feel we have no right to our blessings, our security, our comforts and our prosperity; we are not joyful, but quietly nervous and uncomfortable with our abundance.

And so the Torah teaches us that ki tavo, “when you arrive,” simchah, “joy,” is an obligation. Not a nice, pleasant option, but an obligation, a command. To receive gifts and not enjoy them is a slap in the face of the giver. Enjoy your blessings and share them with others. As the tither declares, I have experienced joy and caused others joy. Samachti vesimachti bo.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Parashat Ki Tetze:Helping Yourself and Others

If you see your fellow’s ass or ox falling under a burden, “you must raise it with him” -- Hakem Takim Imo. Help him to raise it. Share in the burden.

Hakem Takim Imo. You will raise yourself along with him, says the Sefat Emet, playing on the doubled hakem verb and the word imo, “with him.” When you help someone else up, you also help yourself up. The more you share in your friend’s burden, the more you repair yourself and give yourself a boost. The Torah teaches us how to act kindly towards others not just for the sake of those others, but also for our own sake.

What would it do to you “to see” your friend’s burden and turn away? What kind of a hardening of heart would that simple act cause? How would it affect your sense of connectedness to others? The world would suddenly become a disjointed, uncaring lonely place, whereas if you can see and understand his burden and help him with it, then not only is he not alone, but neither are you.

If you forgot a piece of wheat in the field, and you took the trouble to go back for it even though you knew a poor person would otherwise collect it, you would feel tight-fisted and exacting. To leave behind a little for others is not just generous to others. It creates in you a sense of abundance, a sense that the world is a place that provides for its creatures. Your own open hand reminds you of God’s open hand and makes you feel well-cared for. Generosity is a form of well-being.

If you muzzle your ox while he is threshing and do not allow him to eat a little grain as he works, what kind of a work environment are you creating for yourself and those around you? Is the world that tight on time and revenue? Placing a muzzle on an ox also places one on you as well, making you feel constrained and anxious. The freedom of the unmuzzled animal also leads to a sense of freedom and peace in its owner. The world is ours to consume and enjoy as we toil our days away. We do not need to spend our days tethered and constricted.

But the sole purpose of the Torah’s edicts is not self-improvement, writes Rav Bigman, a prominent rabbi in Israel. The aim is not to constantly point back toward oneself, to accrue internal spiritual benefits, but rather to learn to properly “see” the other, to move out of oneself toward a true understand of our inter-connectedness. The aim, in other words, is to learn to raise up that burden imo, “with him,” to learn not to act for his sake alone, nor for one’s own sake alone, but for the sake of imo, of a sense of connection and togetherness.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Parashat Shoftim: On Being Complete

Tamim tehiyeh im Hashem Elokekha (Deut 18: 13). “You shall be tamim with the Lord your God.” What does tamim mean?

One interpretation of tamim is shalem --complete or whole. When you worship God, you should use your complete self: your heart, your mind, your soul, and your physical body. The Hizkuni reads it this way and quotes the following Proverbs verse as an illustration: Bekhol drakhekha da’ehu. “Know Him in all your ways “(Prov 3:6). Use all the tools available to you to try to reach Him, to know Him and worship Him. Don’t just stick your head in a book. Don’t just pray and sing. Don’t just do acts of loving-kindness. Be well-rounded in your worship of God. As the author of Hovot HaLevavot puts it, we should make sure that our insides match our outsides, that our heart, our tongue and our limbs are all in agreement in their worship of God. Having one part of you do one thing and another do another makes a person dishonest and untrustrworthy. Our whole integrated self is what God wants of us.

This reading may explain the connection to the tamim of sacrificial animals. Such animals must be tamim, physically perfect and whole, without blemish, without any part missing. So, too, we aspire to be complete in our worship of God, to not leave out any side of ourselves.

Tamim also implies a single-mindedness of devotion, a clarity of vision which sees that there are no other gods, there are no other priorities, no competing values to rival our commitment to Torah. Tamim. Be whole-hearted. Do not let any other interests compete with God, siphoning off some part of you and causing you to feel conflicted and confused.

But we are conflicted and confused, unable to be tamim, as whole and blemishless as a sheep. We are humans, by our nature incomplete and restless, restless with worry about the present and the future, restless about our place in the universe, and not so entirely sure about which is the right way to live.

Yes, says the Sefat Emet. All of that is true. And so the verse is careful to say, not simply, tamim tehiyeh, that you will be perfect and whole on your own, but tamim tehiyeh im Hashem Elokekha, that you will be able to reach this kind of shleimut, this kind of wholeness, only by being with God, the sole possessor of shleimut, wholeness, as well as shalom, the peace that comes from such wholeness. It is only in God that we find rest for our restlessness, completion for our incompleteness. Read in this way, the verse does not just prescribe the appropriate attitude toward God, but also describes an opportunity for us to resolve a basic human need.

This tamim verse appears in the midst of a prohibition against the use of witchcraft in the attempt to know the future. People pursue such knowledge precisely because they sense their incompleteness, says the Sefat Emet. The search for the future is an expression of human anxiety and insecurity. But witchcraft does not ultimately alleviate this anxiety, says the Sefat Emet; on the contrary, sorcery aggravates it by setting up the false expectation that humans can know and control their futures.

Ironically, the avenue to wholeness is to give up our solo pursuit after wholeness and instead allow ourselves to be completed through God’s wholeness. On Shabbat, when we cease our restless running, we achieve this wholeness and peace; we receive an extra neshama (soul) from above to complete us. The moment we stop trying to complete ourselves, there is room for us to feel the completeness of the divine presence.

Such a feeling is a kind of prophecy. That is why, says the Sefat Emet, the verse exhorting us to be tamim is followed immediately by the promise of continued prophecy. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people (Deut 18:15).” Instead of restlessly seeking a knowledge of the future, if we stand still –like a prophet -- and feel God’s presence, feel ourselves being completed by God’s completeness, we will have achieved the future, achieved a kind of eternal peace.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Parashat Re'eh: Understanding the Choices

“See I set before you blessing and curse,” says Moshe at the beginning of this week’s parsha. Moshe is not just referring here to a one-time choice of following God’s covenant, but to the many daily moral choices that confront us each day. Hayom, he says. “Today.” Every day is a day of choices. And the key to making these choices is the name of the parsha -- Re’eh, “see” – being able to see, to understand the options before us.

How does one see properly, how does one know how to, each day, choose the path of blessings rather than curses?

The language of blessing and curse makes it seem that the choices are obvious, but the details that follow complicate the picture. There will be false prophets that attempt to lead one astray—they will predict signs that come true; they will speak in the convincing language of proofs. But the God they will speak of is one “whom you have not known.” You must learn to see, to perceive what is foreign and unfamiliar, what is too new to be trusted, what does not belong in the tradition. The distinctions are subtle and require deep sight and insight.

And then there are the times that you are drawn to be like others. You say to yourself, says Moshe, matay e’eseh ken gam ani? “When can I do that, too?” The wrong choices are often made by an attempt to be like someone else, to choose a path that is not one’s own, out of an inability to properly see and accept oneself and one’s own natural path. As my sister-in-law Sharon Anisfeld says in a song, “You can’t be who you are not.”

Not everything is black and white, a yes or no question. Eating meat outside of the parameters of the Temple, a good thing or a bad? On the one hand, one can only offer a sacrifice at this central location. On the other hand, the Torah says, if you have a desire for meat and you live far away, make a non-sacred meal of it and enjoy. It’s okay. But hazak, be strong in reference to one thing – You still may not eat the blood. There is room for flexibility – the path can be widened here -- but only up to a point. At some point, the point of blood, the path becomes narrow once more and one must no longer give in to desire but must practice strength, self-control and discipline. Perceiving where the path can be wide and where it must remain narrow is part of the process of learning to “see,” re’eh.

What is the reward for seeing and understanding and choosing the right path in all these situations? HaBrachah asher tishme'u. The blessing is that you will hear. The Sefat Emet says that the blessing is understanding itself, a new kind of hearing or perception. The more one practices the ability to see and make such choices, the more one can see and hear, the wiser one becomes, the closer to a deep divine understanding of the world, and that perception is the ultimate blessing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Parashat Eikev: On Repetition

The book of Deuteronomy, which we began to read a few weeks ago, is a retelling by Moshe of earlier parts of the Torah. The name Deuteronomy, like the rabbinic name for the book, Mishneh Torah, means “the second law.” Why do we need a “second” Torah? My oldest son said to me the other day: “The book of Devarim doesn’t have anything new in it.” That’s true, in a way. So why do we have it?

Its very existence tells us something about the Torah’s attitude toward life and learning -- that repetition is essential. Human beings don’t generally understand things the first time they hear them. We are slow learners. Hence in the first paragraph of the Shma, read in last week’s parsha, we say, Veshinantam levanekha – “you should repeat them [these words] to your children.”

We were slow learners back in the days of the desert, too, Moshe tells us, or as he says, am keshei oref, a people with a hard neck, a stubborn people who need to be shown and taught multiple times the same lesson.

Even the giving of the Torah happened twice. The first time, we were too busy with other things, too busy worshipping our gold idol to really listen, so Moshe went back up for another 40 days and brought back down a second set of tablets. Sometimes people can’t do things right the first time round. God doesn’t give up on us but merely tries again.

The same thing happens when it comes to entering the land of Israel. The first time we screw it up. We are scared and unbelieving. We need to practice our faith skills so that the second time, this time, we can really enter.

Getting the Torah and entering the land are two of the most important things that happen to us as a nation. And they both happen twice. The message is that these things are not really one-time events at all, but works in progress. We are strivers, learners, always receiving the Torah and always on the cusp of entering the land.

In this week’s parsha, we read the second paragraph of the Shma, another instance of doubling, as is the command to recite the Shma “when one goes to sleep and when one awakes,” twice a day. The second paragraph of the Shma begins with its own linguistic doubling, Vehaya im shamo’a tishme’u, “If, then, you surely hear [or obey].” Rashi comments that the first shamo’a refers to old Torah, and the second tishme’u to new Torah. “If you listen to the old, you will be able to hear the new.” If on the other hand, you forget part of the Torah, says Rashi, interpreting another doubled verb, then you will end up forgetting the entire Torah. Each repeated action reinforces itself and creates a path for the future.

The Torah is continually unfolding, says the Sefat Emet about Rashi’s comment here. That is part of what it means to have a “second Torah.” The implication is that we are never finished receiving, never finished learning the Torah. We are to take the stance toward Torah which the book of Deuteronomy takes, a stance of shamo’a tishme’u, of repetition and novelty, understanding that we are part of the process of continued revelation through our repetition or retelling of the Torah.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Parashat Masei: On Travel and Encampment

The Torah honors the journey, the process. What matters is not just the final destination-point, but also the journey itself -- each and every leg of it. And so the Torah takes the time in this week’s parsha to name the 42 stopping points of the Israelites’ journey through the desert. Vayisu . . . Vayahanu. . . Vayisu . . . Vayahanu. . . They travelled . . . they encamped . . . they travelled . . . they encamped.

Such is our life. As the Sefat Emet says, we humans are not like angels, standing still on one leg. We have two legs, in constant motion. The human is a mahalakh, a walker, a traveler, with his feet spread apart, like the letter ayin in the end of the word nasa, to travel. We constantly search and move and grow and change. The fact of our movement is as important as where we end up.

Not to take part in this journey is to be dead spiritually. The Torah aptly contrasts the movement of the Israelites out of Egypt to begin their desert sojourn with the Egyptian burial of their dead. “And they [the Israelites] travelled out of Ramses . . . And the Egyptians were burying those whom God had smitten (Numbers 33:3-4).” Those are the options: either movement or burial, the ultimate standing-still, the ultimate rootedness to place. Not to take part in this journey is to be buried alive.

But the Torah does not describe a life of pure movement to the exclusion of rest. The Torah does not write: Vayisu . . . Vayisu . . . Vayisu . . . Travel is interspersed with encampment, movement with rest, change with stability. Such is the rhythm of life and such is the rhythm of the week, according to the Torah. Six days of struggle and change, and a seventh day, Shabbat, of hanayah, encampment, and menuhah, rest.

Perhaps the one is meant to lead to the other. It is no accident that the Torah begins with Vayisu and concludes with Vayahanu. Travel leads to encampment, struggle and change to equanimity.

On the one hand, travel can be extremely discombobulating. You don’t have a home. You don’t have all your belongings. You don’t know the local culture, the language or the people. And they don’t know you. You are stripped of all the things that normally give you a sense of comfort and identity and belonging. And yet, out of this experience of movement and homelessness, can come a deep sense of peace, a sense that one’s identity is simply one’s skin, that one’s home is simply the world. Travelling provides a kind of clarity of vision about what really matters. Stripped of one’s normal environment and comforts, one discovers that one still exists without them. One discovers that one is lighter, more flexible, and less dependent on one’s environs than one thought, and this knowledge is indeed a kind of peace, a new kind of hanayah, encampment == a coming home within oneself.

Tefillat HaDerekh, the prayer said while travelling, asks for one thing over and over – peace, shalom. Make our journey end in peace, O Lord, and sustain us and make us arrive at our destination in peace. We pray that we travel in peace – that we are not physically harmed along the way – but perhaps we are also praying that this journey be a movement toward peace within the self . Let its lesson, its spiritual destination point be peace and rest, like the Israelites who travelled and then encamped. Vayisu . . . Vayahanu.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the Three Weeks

The three weeks between the fast days of the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av -- days when we mourn the loss of the two Temples in Jerusalem -- are days of hishtokekut and ga’agua, longing and yearning, says the Slonimer Rebbe in his book Netivot Shalom. We do not cry over a loss of the past, but rather we cry as an expression of our yearning for something in the present and the future, our yearning for the divine light that was so clearly present in the Temple.

The experience of the Temple, according to some, was an experience like that of Mount Sinai, the highest form of prophecy and revelation of God. This we do not have today. Our world is a place devoid of clear signs of God, a world in which it is easy to be an atheist.

And yet there is in us this yearning for more, this searching, aching, reaching feeling. This feeling is born out of this sense of God’s hiddenness from the world. It is because we live in a world without the Temple, without a revelation like Mount Sinai, without the perfect Garden of Eden, that we have such feelings of yearning, and so a religious sentiment is born within us. Our yearning is very productive. It creates a kind of presence in the face of a world of absence. As the Italian author Erri de Luca writes, “When you feel that you are missing someone, it is not an absence, but a presence. It is a visit; people, villages from afar have arrived and become your guests for a little while” (The Mountain of God). The act of longing turns absence into presence.

So it is with our feelings of longing for Jerusalem, for a place of God. Through our yearning we create a kind of presence. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, we say, may my right arm be forgotten. I cannot forget my right arm. It is here, constantly, along my side. So, too, through our yearning we create a kind of presence for Jerusalem; we change the reality. The Temple is no longer a thing of the past, to be buried and forgotten but very much a piece of us, something we carry through life with us, like a limb.

There is an important message here about the power of yearning, the power of tears. The Netivot Shalom says that through our feelings of longing during this period, we actually bring closer the redemption, we actually begin to rebuild the Temple, begin to build within ourselves dwelling-places for the divine light. Our yearning has an impact. “Her tear was on her cheek,” says the Ecclesiastes verse, referring to the mourning of Jerusalem. The Netivot Shalom says that this verse means that the tears made an impression on her cheek. Normally tears just roll off, but this type of crying has an impact, makes some impression on the world, creates a kind of presence. Sometimes the power of such yearning creates an even stronger presence than the thing itself that we miss, says the Netivot Shalom.

The cries that emerge out of our world of absence can be incredibly creative, producing something of great beauty and spiritual weight. So are the cries of two of our megillot. The one, Eichah, Lamentations, that we read on the 9th of Av. And the other, the Song of Songs, which we read on Passover (and in some communities, every Friday evening). The Song of Songs is a song which encapsulates these feelings of yearning, as the two lovers desperately search for each other, coming close, but never quite reaching one another. Perhaps it was for this reason that R. Akiva said that the whole of the Torah is holy, but the Song of Songs, the holiest of the holy. It is the search, the yearning, itself – in the face of absence -- that reaches the highest spiritual heights. The Israeli singer Shuli Rand sings a beautiful, painful song about such yearning as well, in which he says to God, “And I continue, in the dark, to dig, and to ask and to beg – Ayeh? Where? Ayekha? Where are you?” It is out of his very sense of divine absence – Where are you, God? – that Rand creates a beautiful, aching sense of spiritual presence.

This three week period of mourning is like the drawing of a black background for a picture, says the Netivot Shalom. On top of this black background, the most beautiful bright colors can be painted. Emerging from our period of deepest darkness and the acute awareness of absence in the world, we begin to create a presence that leads to the highest moments of the High Holidays and Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, the beautiful colors and celebrations of the fall holidays.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Parashat Pinhas: Everyone's Torah

This week’s parsha includes a remarkable story about a group of 5 women, the daughters of a man named Tzelafhad. The women approach Moshe and the other leaders and the whole nation of Israel with a request to receive an inheritance of land -- despite the fact that females do not normally inherit -- because their father, who is no longer alive, had no sons.

Now these 5 had 2 strikes against them in the hierarchy of the time. First, they were women. Second, their father, as they tell Moshe, was a sinner; “he died because of his sin,” they say, and one rabbinic tradition identifies him as the “Shabbat wood gatherer” who was stoned earlier in the desert journey. Surely it could not have been easy for such women to approach the elite leadership. Vatikravnah, “They came close,” the Torah tells us, an unnecessary word, except perhaps to highlight their bravery, the great effort it must have cost them merely to step forward.

How are such daughters of a disgraced family treated by Moshe and by God? With respect and honor. Moshe does not dismiss them, but acknowledges his own ignorance, the limits of his knowledge and the validity of their question. He does the question the highest honor it can be given -- he passes it on to God. And God, for His part, says ken, yes, true, are the words of these women. They should indeed be given an inheritance.

The question concerns the inheritance of the land. But at stake here is also the inheritance of the Torah. Does the Torah only belong to Moshe, to the scholarly elites of each generation, or does every person hold a helek, a portion, even the lowest, most rejected members of the society?

Torah tzivah lanu Moshe , goes the famous saying – Moshe taught us the Torah, but Morashah kehillat Yaakov -- it is an inheritance for the whole congregation of Jacob. It does not just belong to the Moshe’s of the world, but to the entire congregation.

The Torah gains much from this perspective. Moshe received most of the Torah from God at Sinai, but somehow he did not remember or did not know this particular law. It took the daughters of a sinner – it took the perspective of an outsider – to bring about the revelation of this law. As the midrash says of Moshe, HaDin she’eyn atah yode’a,, hanashim danin oto. The law which you, Moshe, do not know, these women legislate. We are all humans, unable to see all sides of the truth; to understand the Torah to its fullest capacity requires the perspective of not just the Moshe’s but also the women and the sinners of the world. The Torah gains something from each person’s contribution.

We never hear that Moshe was the smartest person in all of Israel. When it comes to Torah that isn’t what matters, because even the smartest person is a single human and cannot possibly understand, transmit and reveal the Torah alone. We are only told that Moshe was the humblest person. Humility is a quality that allows room for others, that offers honor and a place at the table – in the land, and at the table of Torah – to each person who cares enough to come forward.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Parashat Balak: The View From Above

In this week’s parsha, the attempt to curse the people of Israel by King Balak of Moab and the prophet Bil’am of Midian is thwarted by God, and the curses are turned into blessings. But the parsha does not end there. It concludes with a story about the Israelites falling prey to the lures of Moabite women who entice them into the idolatrous worship of Ba’al Pe’or. Why does this episode immediately follow the tale of Bil’am? Why doesn’t the parsha simply end – more happily – with the blessings of Bil’am?

The two stories do not fit well together; there is, if anything, a great contrast between them: they paint opposite pictures of the nation of Israel. Bil’am’s blessings speak in lofty poetic terms about the greatness of Israel; it is “a nation that dwells apart” and its dwelling places are good, tov, which the rabbis say implies a high degree of modesty. By contrast, the events of the Ba’al Pe’or incident show Israel not dwelling “apart,” but joining with others in an unseemly manner, not creating modest, private homes, but acting in a most lewd, immodest manner. The sense of contrast here is well captured by the name of the idol, Pe’or, a word related to the modern Hebrew word pa’ar, meaning “gap.” Ba’al Pe’or comes to teach us about a gap, the gap between ideal and reality.

The two stories describe Israel from different vantage points. The one –Bil’am’s picture – is a prophecy, expressing an idealized vision of the people from afar. Bil’am speaks from on high, looking down at the people from the distant vantage point of various mountain-tops; ki merosh tzurim er’enu, he says -- “As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights.” From this lofty view, one can see the people’s great potential and imagine their great future. The Ba’al Pe’or story, on the other hand, speaks of the nitty-gritty daily reality of the people, its earthly struggles with the basest of desires.

The Mount Sinai story tells of a similar dissonance between ideal and reality. A momentous lofty task is given to the people from on high at Mount Sinai, the destiny of achieving “holiness” through the path of the Torah. “I am your God; do not worship any aside from Me,” says God. Meanwhile, down below, at the bottom of the mountain, the people create a molten calf to worship, dancing and eating around their idol. The reality of the people’s concrete deeds forms a sharp contrast to God’s lofty expectations.

Who are we? A people of “good” tents or a wild people of guilty pleasures? The one represents our idealized potential and destiny, our inspiration, our goal. The other represents the reality of the struggle to put that potential into practice, to actualize the dream in the real world. The Torah does not simply tell us about the dream. We cannot reside forever in the world of ideals, of prophecy, of mountain-top visions. Yes, we need such visions to inspire us. But ultimately, the Torah is meant to be lived in this world, its ideals to be put into practice, to be given concrete form in the nitty-gritty of our daily lives. The Ba’al Pe’or story expresses for us the gap between Torah ideal and our lived reality--it highlights the difficulty of our task, the enormity of the bridge we need to construct between heaven and earth.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Parashat Hukat: On Seeing the Well

“We don’t have water. We don’t have food. We don’t have. We want. We need. Give us.” Complaints. Whining. A feeling of insufficiency, of worry about the present and about the future, of not being sure where the next drink or meal will come from. This is the mood of the Israelites during their desert stay. They remind me of very young children, infants or toddlers, who, when hungry or thirsty, cry because they have not yet learned that their needs will be taken care of, are not yet secure in their sense that the world provides.

The response to such complaints is two-fold. First, the absent necessities must be provided. Second, there needs to be some response to the sense of insecurity, the outlook of absence. There is a difference between someone who, though hungry after a long day’s travel, looks forward to the meal that awaits him at home, and someone who, equally hungry but also destitute and penniless, is not sure there will be any food at home for him to eat. The two may be equally hungry but their perspectives on their future create entirely different sets of emotions regarding their present predicament.

Moshe’s failed task in this parsha was to turn the Israelites’ hunger from the one type to the other, to provide them not just with water, but also with a sense of security about their future water provisions. The Sefat Emet points out that God wanted Moshe to speak to the rock le’eyneyhem, “before their eyes,” to open their eyes, he suggests, to the abundant water that already exists for them in this world, hidden beneath the exterior of a seemingly dry rock. Hagar, too, was blind to the existence of such water, and sat crying in the desert until God “opened her eyes” and allowed her “to see” the well that apparently had already existed. This teaches us, says the Sefat Emet, that we are all like blind people until God opens our eyes for us. Moshe’s mistake was in not opening the people’s eyes to the infinite bounty that God has provided in the world, in not providing them with a perspective of fullness and calm. Yes, he gave them water, but it was a one-time miraculous extraction of water dependent on his own hitting of the rock. God wanted him to show the people that the water is always there for them.

In God’s explanation of Moshe’s wrong-doing he uses the word he’emantem, from emunah, or belief. “You did not believe” or, better “you did not make others believe” in Me. The people needed a sense of emunah, of trust and faith in the future, a sense of security that Moshe was not able to teach them. We often think of emunah as something that only the very pious possess, but the truth is no one can live without some amount of it. Without it, we would be a constant bundle of nerves, worrying that tomorrow there would no longer be air to breathe, that the earth would stop giving forth produce and the water sources dry up. We have to live with some amount of faith that our needs will be provided. It gives us a sense of calm, a feeling of fullness even in the face of occasional insufficiencies.

The Israelites are in a state of major transition in this parsha. Two of their three leaders die in the parsha, and the third’s term-end is foretold. After 38 years of wondering in the desert, they are also now for the first time beginning to fight the various peoples who surround the land of Israel, the Edomites, the Canaanites, and the Emorites. They are leaving the sheltered world of desert miracles and approaching a land-based reality. One-time miracles like Moshe’s hitting of the rock to provide water are no longer what the people need. Such miracles simply increase a sense of dependency and anxiety about the future. The people need to learn to see and rely not on miracles that defy nature, but on the natural miracles of the everyday, the rain and the sun, the rivers and the plants.

This transition is epitomized by the two songs that mark the beginning and end of the people’s time in the desert. The first is quite famous – the song that Moshe and the people sing at the parting of the Red Sea. The other appears in this week’s parsha and begins with the same phrase, az yashir. Here, however, the song is sung not in praise of an awesome one-time water miracle, but in praise of the daily provision of water by a simple well. “Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well – sing to it – the well which the chieftains dug” (21:17). At this stage what the people need – both physically and emotionally -- is a well, a continual source of water, a sense of security and sufficiency, of deep flowing reserves that will not dry up. From here on they will indeed no longer voice complaints, no longer exist in this insecure state, but instead begin to see clearly what Hagar saw – that there are wells even in the desert, that we need not fret over our future, because God has provided a world rich with all that we need. Such a perspective is not a fact, but a kind of faith, a way of looking at the world with confidence, security and a sense of wholeness.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Parashat Korah: On Jealousy

Jealousy is one of three things that “remove one from this world,” according to Pirke Avot. In this week’s parsha we see an example of some jealous individuals who were indeed removed from this world. Korah, along with Datan and Aviram and 250 other followers, jealous of the high positions of Moshe and Aharon, incited rebellion and were punished by being “removed from this world”-- some were swallowed up by the earth and some consumed by fire.

That is the simplest meaning of the Pirke Avot teaching, but perhaps there is another. Perhaps it is not so much an external punishment that removes the jealous from this world, but simply a natural consequence of their actions. Jealousy is a very lonely emotion. It pushes others away, makes their happiness and success less important than one’s own. I am jealous of that person’s success. I wish they were not so successful because it makes me feel bad about myself. I am only thinking of me, removing myself from any sense of connection to these others and their success, thereby “removing myself from this world.”

I could think otherwise: Look at how successful that person is. She is my friend/my sibling/ my fellow Jew/my fellow human being, and therefore her success is good for me. We live together, are part of the same community, so that her success rebounds naturally onto me. I take pride in her achievements. I am not removed from this world, but intimately tied to all those in it, consider myself a part of their happiness and success.

This other attitude is one we quite naturally adopt toward our children and our students, as the rabbis note in another famous phrase: bikhol adam mitkane hutz mibno vetalmido. A person is jealous of every person with the exception of his child and his student. Why? Because with respect to children and students, it is easy to take ownership of their success, to understand and see clearly that our own success is intimately connected to their success. With respect to our children and students, we do not “remove ourselves from this world,” but on the contrary consider ourselves intimate partners with those around us.

The key is to adopt the same sense of pride and owndership and solidarity with respect to others as we do with respect to children and students. That was part of Moshe’s greatness. A few parshiyyot ago, Moshe is confronted by the possibility of rival prophets, Eldad and Medad, prophesying not under his auspices. Moshe does not look upon them as rivals. His assistant Yehoshua suggests that he imprison these prophets, but Moshe says: Hamikane ata li? Are you jealous on my account? If only all of Israel would have God’s spirit rest upon them! He does not look at these prophets as threats to his own position or his own ego, but as students or children, whose spirit should be nurtured and encouraged. He does not remove himself from connection to them through jealousy, but on the contrary, understands that they are fundamentally on the same team, working toward the same goal, the goal not of individual ego enhancement, but of bringing God’s presence to dwell among the people of Israel.

Jealousy removes one from this world. When Datan and Aviram were about to be swallowed up by the earth, Moshe told the people around to separate and move away from the tents of these two, to make it clear, in other words, that these two had separated themselves from the rest of the nation, had, through jealousy, literally removed themselves from association with others. It is, on the contrary, by cultivating feelings of connection with those around us like those of a parent or teacher that we ultimately master the lonely jealousy monster and learn to be truly joyful at the success of others, to understand ourselves to be a part of all human successes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Parashat Shelach: On Fear and Bravery

My 4-year-old son was brave this past shabbat. He wanted to join his father in the men’s section of a synagogue in Ashkelon, a city we were visiting for the first time. Through the glass door he could see rows and rows of men, but his father was on the side, obscured from view. Little Asher opened the door, walked a few steps, and returned, saying he was too scared to proceed. A few minutes later, he tried again, and again returned. “This is your chance to be brave,” I said. “You’re scared. That’s fine. But you can do it. You just have to be brave.” That’s it. He went in and did not come out, determined to be brave.

What struck me about this little incident is that it would not have worked to tell him that the reality of the situation was nothing to be frightened of -- I’ve tried that unsuccessfully at other times -- that the men would all surely help him and certainly not hurt him. Fear is in the eye of the beholder. For a 4-year-old, going into that sea of men three times his size in an unknown space was not unlike the experience of the Israelite scouts, approaching an unknown land filled with people of gigantic proportions. Both, from their vantage point, felt there was good reason to be scared.

As the Esh Kodesh, the Hasidic rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto writes, Calev – one of the two lone good scouts to come back with a positive report of the land -- understood the futility of arguing about the reality of the situation with the other scouts. They said that the cities were well-fortified and that the people were of gargantuan size. He did not say: “No. The people are tiny. The cities have no walls.”

What does Calev say instead? Alo Na’aleh veyarashnu otah ki yakhol nukhal lah. We will surely go up and inherit it because we will be able to accomplish this. He does not deny the reality they describe or attempt to convince them that their fears are not justified. The problem is not the reality – as the Esh Kodesh notes from personal experience, sometimes the reality is in fact insurmountable – no, the problem is not the reality, but their attitude, the way they have allowed fear to triumph. And so Calev does not argue with them, but instead encourages them to move forward in spite of their fear, to swallow hard and step through that door into an unknown world of giants.

Note that in the Hebrew two of the phrases Calev uses contain doubled verb forms: Aloh Na’aleh and Yakhol nukhal. It is as if Calev is trying to gently encourage them to keep trying, to work on themselves again and again to be brave. That is the only way to conquer fear, to ineffectuate its power through sheer persistence, through experience piled upon experience. The next time little Asher approaches a scary men’s section, he will be that much less frightened.

No, Calev doesn’t try to argue with the other scouts or the people about the reality of the situation. The point here is not reality, but attitude. Lo nukhal la’aolot – “We will not be able to go up,” the other scouts say. Fear destroys the possibility of action, of “going up” to a higher space, makes us all feel like 4-year-olds, small and vulnerable, or, as the scouts themselves put it, like tiny “grasshoppers.” In the face of such fear there is no argument other than faith and courage, there is no response other than positive thinking. “We can do it. We can.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shavu'ot: Our Torah

Why do we read the book of Ruth on Shavu’ot? In order to teach us that people’s good actions are also considered Torah, says the Sefat Emet. The book of Ruth describes the hesed, loving-kindness, shown by Ruth toward her elderly mother-in-law, and then in turn, the hesed shown by Boaz to Ruth. These acts of human loving-kindness become Torah, says the Sefat Emet, and we read about them on Shavu’ot—the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of God’s Torah on Mount Sinai -- to show that human deeds in the world are also part of Torah, that humans are also involved in the continuing unfolding and creation of God’s Torah in the world.

Our partnership with God in the Torah project is well-depicted by a midrash which says that on Mount Sinai, the luhot (tablets) were jointly held by Moshe and God, each holding an equal 2 tephahim measure on opposite sides. When my children jointly make a birthday gift for someone, they carry it over together to give it to the person, being careful to each hold an equal part of the gift to show that it is an entirely joint project. The Torah is our joint project with God.

On Shavu’ot we usually speak about God’s giving of the Torah. The Sefat Emet points out that Shavu’ot actually works in two directions. We humans, in our prayers, call it “the time of the giving of the Torah,” to commemorate God’s gift to us. But God, for His part in the Torah, calls the holiday, Yom HaBikkurim, “the day of the giving of first fruits,” to commemorate our gifts to Him. The relationship is reciprocal; we both give and receive.

Such a reciprocal approach to Torah means that we carry a tremendous responsibility with respect to the Torah, that we cannot merely sit back and receive, but must take seriously our commitment to preserve and participate and create Torah. Concerning Boaz’s kind gifts to Ruth, the midrash says, “If Boaz had known that God was going to write about him, ‘And he handed her roasted grain,’ he would have given her stuffed veal.” Boaz didn’t realize he was creating Torah, that his deeds would be recorded for posterity as a part of the Torah. If he had understood this, if he had understood the gravity of even the minutest of his actions, he would have acted with even greater generosity and joy; he would have taken his hesed to its extreme. Such is the implication of the Sefat Emet’s approach to Torah, a sense of responsibility and gravity concerning our actions in the world, a sense of the grandness of our task as partners in God’s Torah.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Parashat Bamidbar: Desert Thirst

Upon driving out of the city limits of the little Negev town of Yerucham, where we are living this year, all one can see for miles is desert--barren brown mountains stretching out to the horizon. My first nervous thought is always: Do I have enough gas? Do I have a cell-phone? Do I have enough water?! One feels the desert’s barrenness, that it is a place of absences, a place without, without color or vegetation, without the basic necessities of life –water, food, shelter.

This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, “In the desert.” What happens “in the desert?” Almost everything of importance to the Israelite people. It is here that they become a nation, here that they receive the Torah, and here that they begin to develop a relationship – with all its ups and downs – with God. Why “in the desert?” Why in this place of emptiness and absence?

There is something important about the emotional experience of this barrenness. The rabbis say that only one who makes himself “like a desert” is truly capable of receiving the Torah. The Sefat Emet explains that a person needs to be aware of his own barrenness, of his own intense lacks before he can be filled by the great presence of the Torah. A person who views himself as already complete will not be open to receiving the gifts of the Torah. The more one feels that one is missing something, the more one feels incomplete, like an open, empty vessel, the more room the Torah has to enter and fill the vessel.

Maybe being “like a desert” means cultivating a kind of longing or yearning – a thirst like that of the parched land. Thirst is an intense awareness of the lack of a basic necessity; our desire for Torah should be like thirst, a desperate and intense longing. All the complaining the Israelites did in the desert, the constant crying out for water, the yearning for the watermelons and squashes of Egypt, perhaps this desert experience of longing is meant to be translated into a spiritual longing, a longing for God and for Torah, a deep awareness of absence which leads to the yearning for Presence.

In modern Hebrew, the word to express this emotion is ga’agua. It can be used to express the feeling of missing someone who is temporarily absent, but it can also be used to express a kind of yearning for something greater than oneself, a sense of oneself as essentially “missing” in some way and therefore striving, reaching for something beyond the self. The desert experience of lacking something like water is the physical parallel to this basic human emotion, an emotion which is at the core of religious pursuit.

As the Psalm -- also found in a popular Shabbat zemer (song) -- goes:
Tzamah nafshi lelokim, l’el hai. "My soul thirsts for the Lord, the living God (Ps 42:3)."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Parashat Bekhukotai: On Walking

Im bekhukotai telekhu, “If you walk in My statutes.” Thus begins this week’s parsha. The parsha continues with a description of the bounty that will ensue if you follow the Torah path -- the rains and the crops and the driving away of all enemies -- and the terrible events that will befall you if you do not follow this path. What does it mean “to walk” in God’s statutes?

The Sefat Emet says that the word telekhu, “walk,” reminds us that we, as human beings, are each considered a mahalakh, a “walker,” someone who does not stand in one place but moves, changes, and grows. Make yourself into a walker, a grower. How? Through the Torah. Do not think the Torah is something that one acquires on one leg or in one day. The Torah is a form of “work,” of occupation, of long-term growth. That is why the brachah (blessing) we say over the learning of Torah is la’asok baTorah, “to be occcupied in the Torah.” The Torah is not an acquisition, but an engagement, an occupation.

The Sefat Emet further points out that the word bekhukotai uses the word khok, which, according to the rabbis, is a special term for those laws whose reasons are not understood by human beings, laws like kashrut (keeping kosher) and shatnez (the prohibition against mixing certain materials within a fabric). Approach all Torah as a khok, says the Sefat Emet. Do not think that you are big enough to understand it, but have the humility to approach it, to do it, without fully understanding. And, sometimes, says the Sefat Emet, out of this sense of your own smallness, out of this humble approach to Torah, will come great revelations. If you do the Torah simply because you must, then in the course of doing it, its reasons, its essence, its meaning will become clear to you.

The rabbis say that skhar mitzvah mitzvah. The reward of observing one commandment is the ability to do another commandment. The Sefat Emet reads this phrase differently. Sekhar mitzvah --the reward of doing a commandment simply for its own sake, without understanding it, is mitzvah -- the gift of coming to a deeper understanding and appreciation of that mitzvah itself. Inner meaning comes after action, as a reward for action.

Im Bekhukotai telekhu. If you walk in My statutes. The suggestion here is to walk, to make one’s humble way through the pathways of Torah, like the Israelites in the desert, faithful explorers on a long journey. We cannot see clearly the destination point of our journey; we cannot master the Torah; we can only walk and explore and grow with a spirit of openness, dedication and discovery.

What is the reward of such an attitude? Great bounty. The Torah speaks of physical bounty, but the Hasidim point out that there is also great spiritual bounty which results. The Torah does not simply say that geshem, rain will fall, but gishmeikhem, “your rain.” Plentiful will be your rain, your own spiritual bounty, if you walk in this humble way through the Torah and the world.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Parashat Behar: On Equality

Amidst a discussion of the Yovel, the Jubilee year, the Torah says, twice, lo tonu ish et amito, “do not wrong one another.” The rabbis say that the first ona’ah refers to property -- one should be careful not to wrong another by underpaying or overcharging in a sale. The second ona’ah, say the rabbis, refers to ona’at devarim -- wronging someone through the use of words.

My question is: What does ona’ah have to do with Yovel? Why is this prohibition against mistreatment of your fellow given here? With regard to the ona’ah of property, the answer is clear; the Torah warns people to be careful to take into account the number of years remaining before the Yovel year – when property automatically returns to its original owner – in determining the price of property. But what about ona’at devarim, which the Talmud says is the more serious offense of the two? How is wronging someone through speech connected to the Yovel year?

The Yovel year is the 50th year after 7 cycles of 7 years each of Shmita, of working the land for 6 years followed by a land sabbatical on the seventh. On the 50th year, not only is one forbidden to work the land as in the shmita year, but two other important things happen. First, all land returns to its original owner. At the time, land was wealth. If a family became impoverished and sold its land, in the yovel year the land was returned to them and they got a chance to start again on equal ground with their fellows. Second, all Israelite slaves are freed. Again, such a state of enslavement would have been reached through poverty, and by being automatically freed in the yovel year, people were guaranteed a fresh start even if they had fallen on hard times. On the yovel year, the Torah says, dror, “freedom,” was declared throughout the land; no Israelite must be master or slave to another, and all must stand on equal economic footing in terms of land holdings.

The prohibition against ona’at devarim seeks to instill a similar sense of equality among people. Consider some classic examples of such forbidden speech acts – to remind one who was previously not religious or a convert of his past; to say (as Job’s friends did) to one who is suffering that he probably deserves it because of his sins; to ask a person a technical question in a field in which the questioner knows the questionee has no expertise. The common denominator in all these examples, as Nechama Leibowitz points out, is that a person is trying to show that she is superior to another person, to point out the inadequacies of another in order to raise her own stature by contrast. Such a sense of superiority is prohibited by the Torah. One must treat one’s fellow as an equal, in speech – by avoiding ona’at devarim -- as well as in deed – by freeing slaves and returning land on the Yovel year.

The use of the verb ona’ah is telling in relation to this issue of equality. In the rest of the Torah, the object of the verb is someone weaker than oneself, the ger (“stranger”), the orphan and the widow. Here the object of the verb is first ahiv, “his brother,” and then amito, “one another.” The Torah seems to be saying: Do not treat your brother, your equal, as if he is in any way less than you. Treat him as an equal.

Ona’at devarim is an issue that comes up a great deal, especially among siblings, where there seems to be a constant need to show one’s superiority; “Did you go to that park with your class today? I already went there last week.” Sometimes, there is some resistance to admitting one’s intentions. “But I was just asking a question. I just wanted to know.” The matter is a delicate one, depending to a great extent on one’s inner thoughts and intentions. It is for this reason, says Rashi, that the Torah says, immediately following this prohibition, Fear your God. Only God knows one’s true intentions.

Both the mitzvah of Yovel and the prohibition against ona’at devarim speak to the same issue, an attempt to remind us of the basic equality of all humans, or, as the Sefat Emet would put it, of our common divine source. We are none of us slaves and none of us masters, but all equal in the eyes of God.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Parashat Emor: The Many Layers of Sefirat HaOmer

This week’s parsha sets out the Torah holiday calendar, from Shabbat to Passover, Shavu’ot, Rosh HaShanah and all the rest. Included in this discussion is the special period of time we are currently in the midst of, called Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavu’ot.

This is a confusing season. On one level, the count from Passover to Shavu’ot seems to be a happy time. We have the security of having left Egypt and the joyous anticipation of receiving the Torah on Shavu’ot. It is also spring-time, a time of excitement and rebirth, and also a time of harvest; Passover marks the beginning of the barley harvest and Shavu’ot, the wheat harvest.

Overlaid on top of this clear sense of joy and anticipation, though, are layers of complicated and painful Jewish history. According to Jewish law, certain mourning practices apply during this period, like the prohibition against haircuts and live music. These mourning practices commemorate a terrible plague suffered by the students of Rabbi Akiva in Israel in the second century, but they also point to the many other tragedies suffered by the Jewish people over the centuries. And then there is the modern calendar of commemorations, from this week’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day, to next week’s Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day, to Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, which we celebrate in a few weeks. These modern holidays are also a mix of sadness and joy, of difficult memories of our recent past and a sense of the blessedness of the current era.

It turns out that, as the Haggadah makes clear, we did not just suffer one era of travail and redemption in Egypt, but many, “in every generation.” Redemption, then, is not a permanent state – we left Egypt and will never return – but a kind of merry-go-round or roller coaster of historical ups and downs.

Where does that leave us emotionally? Sad or happy? Excited or despairing? Where is the sense of stability in the midst of the whirl of Jewish history? How are we to bear this emotional turmoil?

Amidst all this craziness, we are on a path, a 49 day path, which makes its slow but steady progress, one calmly ordered day at a time, toward a goal, the receiving of the Torah. The Torah stands, like the mountain it was given on, as a steadying point of light in the distance, a mark of stability and continuity amidst our stormy history. Things change; people come and go; Jews suffer and celebrate; but always there is the Torah, standing for eternity with its laws, its values and its stories, keeping us company in good times and bad.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Parashat Kedoshim: Some Thoughts on Kedushah (Holiness)

The Torah does not say we are inherently a holy people. It says, in the start of this week’s parsha – kedoshim tehiyu. “You shall be holy.” Holiness requires work. It is not in our nature, but in our conduct. It is a path, a process, a staircase to climb. The Hasidic author of Sefat Emet points out that elsewhere the Torah says of kedushah, holiness, that it must happen hayom umahar “today and tomorrow.” Today and tomorrow forever, he says, because holiness is not a state but a never-ending process, a constant yearning and striving to do better.

What is it that we are aiming for in kedushah? The traditional explanation understands kedushah as a kind of separation or restraint, learning to control one’s appetites, especially in relation to food and sexual intercourse. Indeed, the statement kedoshim tehiyu at the beginning of this week’s parsha comes on the cusp of the list of prohibited sexual relationships at the end of last week’s parsha. And our own parsha concludes with a discussion of prohibited foods and sexual relationships, speaking of all these separations explicitly as an issue of kedushah.

But kedoshim tehiyu also seems to point in another direction. The parsha is filled with laws – from ethical business and legal edicts to a prohibition against revenge and laws protecting the poor and the stranger. Rav Sabato, a contemporary Israeli rabbi, says that the Torah gives us a double goal in this week’s parsha – kedushah and hesed, loving-kindness. On the one hand we are asked to hold back from things in the world that we would, in the natural course of things, be free to take part of. On the other hand, we are asked to give to others, to the world, more than is our natural obligation to give. We are asked to take less and give more, to practice both restraint and generosity.

Pe’ah, the practice of leaving a corner of one’s field unharvested for the poor, exemplifies how these two opposing tendencies actually work together. In this single mitzvah, one is asked to practice both restraint and generosity; hold yourself back from harvesting your entire field in order that you have something to give to the poor. Similarly, the prohibition against adultery is meant not only to hold you back from performing an improper deed, but also to preserve the family one is committed to, to insure that attention is sent in that direction and not another. Restraint and generosity go together in many mitzvot.

Learning to be both self-restrained and generous is a way of learning to be like God Himself. Kedoshim tehiyu ki kadosh ani, “Be holy for I am holy,” says God, both restrained – as in the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, God’s self-containment -- and open-handed, overflowing with the generosity of life.

We have reached the middle of the book of Leviticus, also called Torat Kohanim, the “Law of the Priests.” Perhaps this prescription to be kadosh like God Himself is meant only for the elite, for some special class of people like the priests. No. Kedoshim tehiyu is preceded by a call to all of Israel, kol adat benei Yisrael, which the rabbis say means that the parsha was given in a large communal gathering called hakhel. This kind of kedushah, this kind of striving for both restraint and generosity, is expected of every person in Israel. We are not inherently a holy people, but we are marked by our communal desire to become one.