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.