Thursday, December 20, 2012

Parashat Vayigash: One Wheel

“You shall not take revenge nor bear a grudge on other members of your people” -- What is this like? If one was cutting meat and the knife sliced his hand, would he then turn around and hurt the hand [that made the cut]? (Talmud Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4).

We are all part of one body – if we hurt another, it is like hurting ourselves. This is the deep truth that both Yehudah and Yosef come to in this parsha. Last week’s parsha ends with Yosef saying – Let Benjamin stay as a slave and the rest of you “go up in peace to your father.” Go up in peace to their father?! If they have learned one thing from the Yosef incident, it is that if one person in the family is suffering, everyone is suffering. There will be no peace with Benjamin a slave in Egypt just as there has been no peace with Yosef gone. As Yehudah puts it: Nafsho keshura be’nafsho – Yaakov’s soul is connected to Benjamin’s soul; their fates are deeply intertwined.

What Yehudah understands from the suffering side of things – that when one person suffers, we all suffer – Yosef understands from the doing well side of things – when one person is successful, we are all successful. This great power and prestige I have earned in Egypt, says Yosef, is not for me, for my own good alone, but for the good of the whole family (and by extension, the whole of Egypt and its surrounds); his good is causing others’ good by providing them with essential food.

This attitude is the exact opposite of sibling rivalry, the primary modus vivendi up until this point in the Torah. From Cain and Abel to Yaakov and Esav to Yosef and his brothers, the feeling was always that if one brother received some benefit, it was to the detriment of the others; there was no sense of a joint enterprise. The whole notion of wanting to harm, to kill the other brother, came out of this misunderstanding of the individuals’ essential separateness. They didn’t understand that hurting another (especially a brother) is like hurting your own hand, that Abel’s blood would continue to cry out to Cain forever.

Now it is time for nationhood, and nationhood requires a joining of paths, an understanding that our brothers’s suffering is our suffering, and our sisters’ successes are our successes. If a single family can’t learn to feel this way toward each other, how can the world?

A symbol of this new perspective of connectedness is the wagon wheel. Wagons, agalot, are strangely emphasized numerous times in this parsha as the vehicle of choice for bringing Yaakov, his family and all their belongings down to Egypt. Perhaps it is because agalot, whose root is egol, “round,” representing its wheels, symbolize a joining together of fates; all the spokes are connected and turn together to make a whole, moving as one. Yosef’s first dream imagined 11 sheaves of wheat in a circle around him bowing down. It is an arrogant egocentric dream. But the same image in the form of a wheel becomes a symbol of unification and connectedness; we all turn together.

The wheel perspective is not an easy one to maintain; we think of ourselves primarily as individuals, even within a marriage or a family, and certainly in the community, and the larger world. But on some deep level, we are all part of the same wheel, in the same boat, part of the same planet, our fates inextricably linked. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnames Buddhist monk, uses the image of waves in an ocean. Does each individual wave think of itself as taller or smaller, more beautiful than the next, or are they all simply waves, made of the same water, a tiny part of a vast ocean? Yehudah and Yosef came to some understanding of this truth in this week’s parsha – that we do not and cannot exist separately – and there is great strength in this perspective.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Parashat Miketz and Hanukah: On Not Being Swallowed Up

“Sometimes in my tears I drown.” So sings the singer Matisyahu. We all sometimes drown in our tears, are overwhelmed by sadness, by despair, by the darkness that can surround and swallow us up. That’s how Pharaoh felt in his dreams – skinny cows swallowing up fat cows, the bad consuming the good, until there is no trace of light or hope. No wonder the Torah says he woke up and “his spirit was agitated,” Vatipa’em ruho (41:8). He had looked into the possibility of darkness taking over the world.

What do we do about this overwhelming darkness, about the tears – even legitimate tears for real terrible things that happen – that want to consume us? In the midst of the darkest period of the year, Hanukah offers us a response, a way of living in this darkness.

The answer is light. It seems simple, but it is very deep. One cannot combat darkness with darkness. One cannot enter into a battle with darkness and try to drive it away by negativity, by arguing against its existence. No. Even with the best intentions, one is easily swallowed up by darkness. The only option is to create light, to create some opposing force of good.

And furthermore, teaches Hanukah, it does not need to be a big light. A small cruse of oil will suffice. Don’t despair and think – but I am one person. Even if I try to do good, to create light, what can I do to effect the cosmos? These problems are bigger than me. No, Hanukah teaches never to think this way, but to believe in the single cruse of oil, the single act of goodness, the single human light. Because no matter how small the light, even a single point, a tiny flashlight has the capacity to transform the darkness.

Its transformation is greater than itself. This is the miracle of Hanukah. That such small acts have ripple effects, that light has a way of spreading and multiplying, that a little oil goes a long way, longer that it should by all natural standards.

The Sefat Emet asks why the miracle didn’t happen with a fire coming down from heaven. Somehow this miracle needed to happen through human agency – people needed to take the time to search for pure oil, to search for the light and light it, and to do so even if they thought – no, knew – the oil was not really enough to break the darkness.

Such acts are the acts that bring about miracles, that draw down onto earth the light of heaven. They begin as small acts, but they are essentially acts of faith – of a belief that by lighting one small light the world will not be consumed by darkness. Once we act, God responds double-fold, no triple-fold, no 8-fold, which means endlessly. For once we take that first step, begin to create light in the face of overwhelming darkness, we have entered the arena of light, and here, there are no boundaries.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Parashat Vayeshev: On the Suffering of the Parent

It’s painful to be a parent. Someone once said to me that it’s like having your heart walk around in someone else’s body. It does feel like that sometimes – you feel your child’s pain so intensely.

Maybe that’s why in this week’s parsha, the only person’s emotional suffering we hear about is Yaakov, the father’s. Yosef is the one going through the ordeal – being stripped, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and wrongly accused and jailed. But we don’t hear a word of emotion from him. (Interestingly, in next week’s parsha, we hear the brothers speak of Yosef’s cries from the pit, but here, at the time, the Torah does not mention any such cry.) Yosef is busy dealing with the situation, making the best of it, turning failure into success and making friends with those in power. It is his father, at home without such action to occupy him, who does the suffering, crying endlessly.

Yaakov believes that his son is dead. According to the Sefat Emet, God did not reveal to Yaakov that Yosef was still alive in Egypt because He thought that would be even more upsetting to him, to worry over what was becoming of him. Perhaps that is so; to imagine each trial and worry over its outcome when one is unable to do anything to help – that would indeed be torture for a parent.

And yet, Yaakov seems on some level to have intuited that the death of his beloved child was not complete – why else would he refuse to ever be comforted? One cannot be comforted for a death that is not real.

Yaakov spent most of the rest of his days in pain over Yosef. Perhaps there was no other way. That is the price of connection.

But perhaps there was, there is a way. Avraham experienced a similar near-loss of his beloved son and was somehow far less scathed. Avraham’s experience, of course, was much, much shorter, only a few days of agony. And Avraham also seems to be a less emotional, and less attached sort of person than Yaakov (Sarah, on the other hand, seems to have died from the experience). But one also senses in Avraham a kind of unshakeable faith that helped him weather these storms.

The fact is that things did work out okay in the end for Yosef and also for Yaakov. Yaakov could not have foreseen that, but maybe he could have suffered less along the way if he’d been able to get to that place of faith, to move beyond the worry and simply trust that with all the ups and downs, his child would come out on top in the end. Maybe such a stance can help us all keep the heart that walks around in someone else’s body a calm and faithful heart.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Parashat Vayishlach: On Fear and Prayer

Sometimes we are so gripped by a negative emotion – fear, depression, or anxiety -- that it overwhelms our ability to see flexibly and to imagine a positive outcome. This emotion becomes the lens through which we view the world, and we get stuck -- It is hard to get out of this state.

I wonder how Yaakov did it. In the beginning of this week’s parsha, we hear that he is overwhelmed by fear. Vayira Yaakov me’od vayetzer lo . “Yaakov was greatly frightened and anxious” (32:6). He has just been told that his brother Esav is approaching him with 400 men. This is all the information he has. It is natural for him to view this information through the prism of a powerful fear – a childhood fear he has carried with him for 20 years after running away from this same brother who wanted to kill him.

At first it is this fear alone that guides Yaakov’s views and actions – he prepares to be attacked, splitting his camp into two parts so that “If Esav comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape” (32:9).

But this is not the only action Yaakov takes to prepare for Esav’s arrival. Perhaps if it had been, he would indeed have been attacked; sometimes we create our own destinies through fear; the world fulfills our worst expectations precisely because of this emotion and the way we have shaped our actions accordingly.

But Yaakov rises above this fear-tinged view of things. He sends out gifts to his brother –elaborate gifts of many many animals, which the Torah spends two full verses listing – in the hope, as he says, that “perhaps he will show me favor.” Yaakov was able – in the midst of an overwhelming fear – to imagine a positive outcome.

And by imagining it, he made it so. What was Esav’s intent in coming with 400 men? We will never know, but surely Yaakov’s ability to imagine that things could end amicably is what helped tipped the balance in favor of peace.

Whence Yaakov’s strength? Whence his positive energy? Prayer. Rashi famously points to 3 things that Yaakov does to prepare for Esav’s arrival – war, prayer and presents. Perhaps there is a reason for this order. Yaakov begins, gripped by fear, by assuming the worst and preparing for war. But then, after turning to God in prayer, he emerges with the faith to imagine a positive end, and the strength to make it happen.

This is what prayer does for us. It transforms us. Whether or not it has an effect on God is impossible to know, but it can have an incredible effect on us. Lehitpallel – “to pray” in Hebrew is a reflexive verb; prayer is a way of speaking to ourselves as much as to God. It helps us reshape our perspective on the world, to get out of the prism (and prison) of our fear and despair, and believe in the possibility of a positive force in the world.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Parashat Vayetze: Glimpses of Fullness

Holding one of my children and stroking her hair, listening to her breathing, I feel a wave of gratitude wash over me. We are both awake and very still. I feel full, fuller than I thought possible. There is nothing more I could want in this world than this child. Thank you, God, for this gift.

Amidst all the scheming and rivalry of this week’s parsha (and the last one) – between Yaakov and Esav, Yaakov and Lavan and Rachel and Leah—amidst all this noise is a moment of stillness and fullness, the birth of Yehudah, Leah’s fourth son.

Leah explains her first three sons’ names in terms of her restless striving for her husband’s love – “Now my husband will love me;” “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved,” and “This time my husband will become attached to me.” The birth of the child occasions here not a sense of fullness but a reminder of her essential emptiness, of a very basic absence in her life.

Something happens, though, with the birth of Yehudah, her fourth son. His name means “Thank you, God.” “This time,” she says, “I will thank [odeh] the Lord.”

The rivalry between the sisters is by no means over. Leah speaks angrily to Rachel in the next “mandrakes” scene: “Is it not enough that you took my husband that now you have to take my sons’ mandrakes as well?”

The strife continues. But here in the middle of the parsha, we get a glimpse at a possible solution – a sense of fullness so large that it overwhelms all competition. Strife is born out of a sense of internal poverty, of scarce resources. But gratitude grows out of fullness, the emotional equivalent of the cornucopia or the waves of the sea. There can be no fight here; there is plenty.

The Torah offers us a similar glimpse of breadth in the midst of last week’s similarly strife-ridden parsha. On either side are the stories of Yaakov’s wrestling of birthright and blessing from his brother Esav, but in the middle, in the story of Yitzhak and his wells, for one split second, we feel a sense of stillness, of contentment and fullness. Here, too, there is strife – the first 2 wells are called “contention” and “harassment” because of the fights over their possession, but the third is called Rehovot, or “Large Spaces,” for “God has at last broadened our space so that we may increase in the land.” A broadening or opening up of space – the sense that there is more than enough to go around -- this is the antidote to strife; this is gratitude.

Yitzhak says that God has at last broadened the space, but it is really our job to feel, to take note of its breadth, of the fullness of our blessings. Nachmanides suggests that those three named wells of Yitzhak represent the first, second and third temples. The first two are destroyed through strife and contention, but the last – the image of our hoped-for future – will be one of fullness. Indeed, the rabbis say that the in the future all sacrifices will be annulled except for the thanksgiving offering. There is something utopian about gratitude; it is an emotion that draws its energy from the fullness and perfection of a future world. Our ability to catch glimpses of it in this world, as did Yitzhak in last week’s parsha, and Leah in this week’s – to stand still enough to feel that fullness – is what brings that utopian future into our daily lives.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Parashat Haye Sarah: Seeing God in Each Other

Where is God today? In the beginning of last week’s parsha, the Torah says that God appeared to Avraham. Why doesn’t God appear to us?

Maybe He does and we don’t notice. Look again at the beginning of last week’s parsha – It says that God appears to Avraham and immediately afterward Avraham lifts up his eyes and sees three “men” and runs to bring them into his house. Avraham feels God’s presence through his interactions with fellow humans. The narrative switches back and forth between Avraham’s interactions with those “men” and his interactions with God, as if to indicate that they are of a piece; it is through Avraham’s acts of hesed (loving-kindness) toward these people – bringing them in, feeding them and attending to them – that God’s Presence in the world becomes manifest.

We learn the same thing from Avraham’s servant in this week’s parsha. He is concerned before going that the task – to bring back a wife for Isaac -- will be hard, but Avraham assures him that God will send “His angel” to help. Where is this angel? Avraham’s servant makes a deal with God when he gets to the well outside of the town, to the effect that God will make it clear which young woman to choose. Where do we see God’s hand, where do we see this “angel” in the story that ensues? In Rivka’s acts of hesed, in the water she so kindly and unstintingly offers the servant and his camels. Here are the signs of God’s Presence in the world, these acts of gracious caring, these expressions of a sense of higher purpose, of a belief that we are not just individual selves looking out for our own good. What could be more divine than that?

This week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there have been so many acts of caring and giving that it is suddenly difficult not to see God’s Presence in the world. The Sefat Emet says that Avraham was a channel through which hesed from above was able to be pulled into this world below. All around us are such angels, such channels of divine hesed. We are lost and someone helps us find our way. Someone reaches out, says the thing we need to hear just at the right moment. All around us are angels. The challenge is not just to try to be such channels of good for others, but to recognize, in the people around us, the presence of God.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Parashat Lekh Lekha: The Divine Perspective

Was Avram a great warrior? What gave him the equanimity to enter the conflict between the 4 kings and the 5 (Gen 14), a conflict that had been raging for some 25 years? Yet Avram does not hesitate, calmly gathering his friends and entering the fray.

There is some greatness to Avram that is beyond the everyday. He exists in the everyday world, suffers hunger, has his wife stolen, his sheep fought over with his nephew, his nephew taken in captivity, but interspersed among all these worldly problems, at regular intervals, he hears the word of God. He hears God tell him things about the future and he has the vision to see them – to look out at the land and see his progeny inheriting it, for generations to come. And it is this vision, this ability to see oneself as a part of a larger history, a larger plan, a larger world, that gives him the strength and the courage to persevere. Fighting 5 kings must seem like nothing to one engaged in divine conversations about eternity.

“400 years. What a long range perspective!” This is what my father said about Avram (to whom God revealed His 400-year plan for the people of Israel) in a speech he gave at my high school graduation. This is Avram’s strength. He is not mired in the problems of the present. The Torah juxtaposes 2 types of looking in this parsha (13:10-17). First Lot looks out at the land, and sees the beautiful gardens of Sodom and decides to move there. Then Avram looks out and God tells him to look north and south, east and west, all the land that he sees will be his and his descendants’ forever and ever. This is a global view – all of space and all of time are suddenly connected for Avram. He is able to adopt a divine perspective.

How do we see the world? Piecemal, like Lot – what seems shiny and bright right now -- or do we have a sense of history and continuity and connection like Avram? Avram’s vision strengthened him, and it can strengthen us as well; as they said in Margalit’s preschool: “God told Avram that his progeny would be like the stars of the sky. You are one of those stars.” Feeling that you are one of those stars means feeling connected to the past and the future, to eternity, to the south and the north, the east and west, being able to see oneself as a part of a whole that is ongoing. With this vision, nothing can stop us, not 4 kings and not 5 kings; we are a part of eternity.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Parashat Noah: On Sealed Doors

Maybe the world still is essentially bad, as it was when God decided to destroy it with the great flood. What is the solution? Make yourself a tevah, an enclosed space, to ride through the swirling whirling storms of the world, so that you are not touched by it, so that you, at least, do not become swallowed up in the evil of the world. You can bring your family in, too; create a space that is sacred, untouched by the outside waters, and there you can preserve some goodness, some temimut, some little remnant of sanctity. Maybe you can bring some others in, too, like Noah’s animals, others whom you can feed and care for, save from the treacherous outside. But not many. It is an enclosed space you have created.

Maybe that is a good solution to the evil of the world. Sometimes it is necessary to hole up, to stay inside a safe space and at least save yourself and a few others. Sometimes the only other option is to get drowned along with the rest outside.

Maybe sometimes it is a good solution, but it seems that God ultimately did not consider it a sustainable one. Noah preserved something, but he didn’t reach out. There is a limit to the effectiveness of this type of goodness. Avraham, on the other hand, built tents wherever he went, tents that were open on all four sides, unlike Noah’s tightly sealed tevah. Avraham was constantly involved in outreach, converting anyone who passed his way and running forward to bring people in from the road. If the world around was still essentially evil, he was going to make some effort to change it.

But this week is Noah’s parsha, not Avraham’s, and every person comes to this world with a special Torah to teach. Noah’s method, too, deserves some respect; without him, none of us would exist; closed doors saved humanity; they are a method of preservation. We are used to talking about the importance of open doors, but this week I’m wondering about the place of sealed doors, of an attempt to preserve something precious which could easily be swallowed up in the storming waters that are constantly trying to get in.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To Clothe the Naked: On Parashat Breishit and Acts of Kindness

“And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them (Genesis 3:21).”

In the midst of all the greatness of God’s acts in this parsha – the creation of heaven and the earth, of the seas and the trees, of the animals and the humans – in the midst of all this wonder, we could easily lose sight of this simple and intensely intimate act of caring: God clothes Adam and Eve, like a parent clothes her child.

This act comes at the end of a story of sin and punishment – the eating of the forbidden fruit and the resultant punishments to each of the sinners and then their banishment from the Garden. Even at a time of punishment, in the midst of a first moment of distance, God does this warm and nurturing act. God didn’t say to them – you got yourself in this trouble; now get yourself out. He made them clothing. He took care of them even though it was their own fault they needed clothing in the first place (the fruit made them realize they were naked).

The Talmud (Sotah 14a) says that the Torah begins with an act of gemilut hasadim –loving kindness -- and ends with an act of gemilut hasadim. It begins, here in Genesis, with this act of clothing Adam and Eve, and it ends, in the parsha we just read on Simchat Torah, in Deuteuronomy, with the ultimate act of kindness, the act of burial – as the Torah reports that God Himself buried Moshe (34:6). In each case, God’s loving and intimate action surrounds an individual.

These are small acts, not like the wonders of the Red Sea or the 10 plagues or the creation of the world. Yet these are the book-ends of the Torah. Simple small acts of kindness done to one person. The message here is that it is really the simple daily acts of kindness, the most basic of things – clothing the naked, burying the dead – that are the stuff of God in the world.

God is our model for how to act in the world; at our core, there is something divine about us, as we also learn in this week’s parsha: we were created betzelem elokim – in God’s image. So when we speak in our prayers about God’s attributes -- when we say His hands are wide open or that He is full of compassion -- we are really telling ourselves how we should act. God is malbish arumim, “He who clothes the naked,” goes one of the morning blessings, reminding us to surround others with warmth and love as God first did to Adam and Eve.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

For Sukkot: On Fear and Joy

One of the things that stops us from being happy is fear, and also the twin sister of fear, worry or anxiety, which in their own way are forms of fear – fear of what will happen next. We are normally consumed by fears, whether they be on a large scale, the worry over the destruction of the earth through greenhouse gasses and Iran’s nuclear weapons, or on smaller scale, worries over our children’s health and education, our careers and our personal economic situation.

To be truly happy, sameach, as we are called on to be during this holiday of Sukkot, zman simchateinu, requires us to leave these fears behind. But how?

The Sefat Emet says that yirah amitit, “true fear or awe” mevi simchah, actually “brings joy.” This is why Sukkot follows the “Days of Awe.” On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are meant to lose our ordinary fears by acquiring a true sense of awe for the ultimate King. All else pales in comparison. Why fear other humans when they are here today and gone tomorrow? The only thing to fear is God Himself, and this is a fear which brings liberty and joy.

We step out into the world on Sukkot, in our little sukkahs, vulnerable to the elements with our open roofs. But we do not fear our ordinary fears because we are secure in the knowledge that God protects us. Hosha Na, “Please Redeem Us” we say again and again to God, reminding ourselves that it is only God’s protection we seek. And this knowledge brings us joy – the kind of joy reserved for only the truly faithful, who, like dependent children secure in their trust of their parents’ providence, do not worry the ordinary worries, but go out in the world, confident and secure. May this be a holiday of joy!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

For Yom Kippur: On the Power of Speech

“Keep your lips sealed like two grinding stones that cleave to each other” (Rabbi Hayim Vital, as quoted by Hillel Zeitlin in God in All Moments).

We say a lot of things that we wish we hadn’t -- hurtful words out of irritation or anger or an attempt at humor (or even, I’ve noticed in my children, out of boredom), gossipy words out of idle curiosity or a desire to connect to one person by speaking about another, untruthful exaggerated words out of a desire to impress, and interrupting words out of our greater need to be heard than to hear others. Sometimes the moment the words go out, we regret them, sometimes even while we are saying them. Hillel Zeitlin was wise to take this statement of Rabbi Hayim Vital’s as one of his personal hanhagot, his daily habitual practices – to keep his lips firmly sealed.

Yom Kippur is a time when we are particularly preoccupied with the power of the mouth to do wrong. We begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a prayer about vows sworn that have not been fulfilled. And in the list of Al Het’s, prominent among the sins enumerated are those done with one’s mouth; there are at least seven listed, many of which include the word peh, “mouth” or the equivalent -- sins of slander, scorn, and foolish speech. It seems that the mouth is a major center of wrongdoing.

It is also, thankfully, a major center of rightdoing; the mouth has power, in both directions. After all, it is through our mouths that our sins are forgiven on Yom Kippur. What do we do on these High Holidays other than use speech to beseech God -- to forgive us, to be merciful, to grant us life? We say a lot of words on these holidays, as testified by the need for two separate (thick!) prayer books! Shma Koleinu, we say, “hear our voices.”

Our need to beware of what our mouths say – to generally have our lips cleave to one another – comes from the Torah’s respect for the power of speech to do both good and bad in the world. Barukh She’Amar, goes the morning prayer – “Blessed is He who Spoke” VeHayah Ha’Olam, “And the world came to be.” Creation happened out of a series of speech acts – speech is a powerful tool -- and our daily acknowledgement of that creation is itself done through our own powerful speech act of prayer. We honor God’s use of speech through own proper use of it.

And so at this time of year, we practice keeping our mouths both open and shut, learning to respect the power of the mouth and its essential dignity and holiness. The daily Amidah prayer concludes with Elokay Netzor Leshoni Mera , “My Lord, keep my tongue from evil,” and it begins with: Hashem Sefatay Tiftah Ufi Yagid Tehilatekha, “God, open my lips so that my mouth can speak your praise.” May we know when to speak and when to remain silent.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rosh HaShanah Thoughts: On the Line Between Despair and Self-Reflection

Ivdu et Hashem B’Simchah. “Worship God with joy.” Even during this time period of serious reflection, worship God with joy, not sadness.

Repentance – a thoughtful process of self-assessment of one’s faults and shortcomings – can be depressing. I’m still mired in the same issues as last year. The situation is hopeless, one feels.

That isn’t the task – to feel hopeless. The Piaseczner Rav, in a work entitled Hovat HaTalmidim, “The Responsibility of the Students,” outlines some common human faults and ways of overcoming them. He pauses to explain the delicate balance of emotion involved in such self-improvement:

“Do not become saddened, young one of Israel, and do not let your heart drop inside you from the enormous responsibility, for sadness is itself a bad trait which destroys the mind and the heart, and even leads to laziness. “

Instead of sadness, the Piaseczner Rav proposes a kind of gentle motivating worry -- an awareness of one’s enormous potential and of one’s responsibility to fulfill that potential. He paints a picture that expresses the difference between sadness and this state of heightened concern. The person who is sad is like one who has lost his fortune and has no hope of ever retrieving it. He is despairing and depressed. Not so one who knows that there is treasure buried deep, deep under ground. He feels a gnawing urgency to begin the work and a constant worry about how to dig and reach the treasure, but the worry merely propels him to action; he remains essentially positive about his future.

Despair has no role in repentance. On the contrary, one needs to feel inspired and secure that there is indeed a treasure buried deep deep inside oneself and that it is just a matter of work to retrieve it.

Rosh HaShanah is a time of inspiration, not despair. The call of the shofar is not a cry of sadness, but a call to arousal and action, galvanizing the people like the ancient trumpet call to war; there is energy and optimism in this call.

You will be punished, said last week’s parsha, for “not worshipping God with joy,” tahat asher lo avadeta et Hashem Elokekha besimchah. Sadness and despair, as the Piaseczner Rav says, lead to non-action. What we are looking for this time of year is a joyful optimism that inspires us and gives us the energy to do the digging we need to do.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Some Thoughts for the Month of Elul: Taking the Initiative

This is a time of awakening from below. In Hasidic thought, there are two kinds of awakenings -- that from above, when God initiates and causes something to happen inside us or in the world, and that from below, when we humans take the initiative in the divine-human relationship. This period of 40 days between Rosh Hodesh Elul (the fist day of the month of Elul) until Yom Kippur (the 10th day of the month of Tishrei), a period of teshuvah, repentance, is a period of awakening from below, a time when it is we who attempt to awaken ourselves to the service of God and to awaken God Himself to be our partners.

That is why, says the Sefat Emet, the rabbis say that the word for this month, Elul, stands for Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li. “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me.” It is we who must start – must take the first step in feeling that “I am for my Beloved.”

Historically this time-period is understood as the time period in which the first national sin was repented for, the Golden Calf. This is the 40 day period of repentance at the end of which, on Yom Kippur, God sent Moshe down with the second set of Tablets, showing His complete forgiveness of the people. These second set of Tablets, says the Sefat Emet, thus represent the Torah as it is won by the people’s own spiritual work. The first set of Tablets came down purely as a gift from heaven. For this reason, they could not last. But the second set of Tablets were earned by the people’s sincerity and devotion, and so this is the Torah that remains with us to this day, the Torah that we earn through our hard work. No wonder, then, that it is at this time of year that we celebrate Simchat Torah, the joy of Torah; what we are celebrating is our ownership and participation in the Torah that we have brought down to earth.

Open miracles don’t happen anymore. God does not cause plagues to reign on our enemies (at least not in obvious ways) nor do we see Him revealed at the top of a mountain filled with thunder and lightning. Our experience of the divine, of revelation, our understanding of Torah, comes only through our own hard work. As the Sefat Emet often says, the more you put in, the more you get out. The more you believe, the more will be revealed, the more you work on yourself spiritually, the more you will be conscious of the divine in the world. Religious sensibility is a muscle like any other; the more you work out, the more fit you are.

What a good message for the beginning of the school year! Learning is not a gift that descends from above. It is hard won. And yet, it is also a gift; we should not forget the end of the verse – V’Dodi Li, “And my Beloved is for Me.” If we put in the energy, if we take the initiative, then God, too, will play His part; we will also receive – from above – more than we put in. As the ancient rabbis put it in God’s voice, “If you make an opening for Me as narrow as the eye of the needle, I shall make the opening wide enough for camps full of soldiers and siege engines to enter it (Pesikta deRav Kahana 5.6).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Parashat Matot-Masei: Stopping Along the Way

When I finish this walk, I will go home and eat breakfast. After I finish putting the kids to bed, I will have a cup of tea and go back to my work. We think these thoughts all day long. While we are in the midst of one activity, we are waiting for it to be over, so that we can move on to the next activity. Are we ever present in the activity of the moment, not thinking about where it’s leading us, what will happen next, but simply engrossed in the moment?

I think that may be the message of the Torah’s detailed description of the people’s encampments in the desert, the long list of the places they stopped along the way from Egypt to the land of Israel (Num 33). Why list every single place name (42 in all)? Because the Torah values every step along the way; each point is precious, a tiny moment of redemption.

The Torah itself doesn’t even tell us about the destination point, doesn’t describe the people’s entry into the land of Israel. That is the goal they have been moving toward the whole time, but that is not the point; the point, it turns out, is all those little stops along the way; the point is the journey itself, the life that was led on the way to the land.

We humans are strivers; we live a life in constant motion, trying to achieve something, to get somewhere, to do something. It does indeed feel like vayisu . .. .vayisu . . . vayisu . . . “They travelled . . . They travelled . . . They travelled . . . “ This is as it should be; we have a job to do in this world. But at the same time, we should not forget the value of the process itself, the fact that every single moment – every single place along the way -- is a moment of redemption. The value of this moment does not come from the fact that it leads to a certain destination; we might very well not get to that destination; each place along the way has its own value.

That may be why the Torah takes the time to write, of each place along the way, not just Vayisu, “They travelled,” but also Vayahanu, “They encamped.” We are travelers, but we also need to learn to stop and be present at each place along the way; today, right now, is the moment of redemption.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Haftarah for Parashat Pinhas: On Jeremiah and Empowerment

Who said these words? “Don’t say you’re too young to do it.” “Don’t be scared of them.” “Good job [seeing what there is to see].” “You’ll be as strong as a fortified city or an iron pillar.”

Who said these words? A life coach? A parent to a child? No. God to Jeremiah. All those words are quotes from this week’s haftarah, the first of the three haftarot of rebuke we read during this three week mourning period for the destruction of the Temples, culminating in Tisha B’Av. This week we read Jeremiah 1-2:3, and we hear God say all those words to Jeremiah at the start of his career as a prophet.

The theme of these haftarot is ostensibly rebuke – God’s anger at the people for various sins and in general, for abandoning His worship. But here, where we begin in Jeremiah, we find another undertone – not so much rebuke as chizuk, personal “strengthening” and encouragement.

The question is one of identification. With whom do we identify in the passage? With the people of Israel, immersed in sin, being blamed and punished here by God, or with Jeremiah the prophet, being initiated into a task to fight evil in the world? The focus of the text in this chapter is primarily on Jeremiah, and begs us to identify with him. We are a nation of prophets, every one of us called to stand strong and fight evil in the world. From this perspective, the message becomes less blame and more empowerment, less rebuke and more chizuk.

This three week period is the designated time to think and mourn over the destruction of the Temples along with the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. One can easily be swallowed up in negativity, in the sense of gloom and doom of many of the prophetic passages, and in the sense of hopelessness that also often attends our thinking about our own world – from climate change to the Taliban to the ever-increasing economic gap in our society.

That’s why I think it is no accident that the haftarot for this period begin with Jeremiah 1-2:3, with a message of encouragement and empowerment to fight the evil. The answer to negativity is not hopelessness, but empowerment to demand change. God understands that what stands in the way of prophetic action – not just for Jeremiah, but for most people – is fear and a lack of confidence – I am just a na’ar, “a young lad,” says Jeremiah; I’ve never done this before; I don’t know how. The message from God is: I am with you; you will be strong; you are good and capable at doing this. This is a message not just for Jeremiah, but for each of us in our own way, a message that leads not to guilt and blame and depression, but to empowerment to create change and a positive future.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Parashat Balak: Seeing the Whole

It seems that cursing works better if done while having in sight a part of the curse’s object, but not its entirety. The Torah emphasizes that Balaam, in his first two attempts to curse the Israelites from a mountain top above them, did not view the whole nation, but only a small portion of them, from the side. This incomplete, side view seems somehow important to the attempt to curse, as King Balak, frustrated by the results of the first attempt, tells Balaam before the second attempt that he will take him to a different place from which he “will only see a small portion of it [the nation],” and “not the whole” (Num 23:13). What is it about not seeing “the whole” that Balak thought would help Balaam to damn the nation?

The nation as a whole, as a unified entity, a kelal, cannot be cursed, says the Netivot Shalom. When the people come together as Balaam finally viewed them on his third attempt – “He saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe” – then curses, judgments, all forms of evil have no power over them. The power of a unified nation is the power to thwart curses, to turn evil intent into blessing. Evil can only rest on the individual if he is unattached to the whole, the source of life, the tree trunk of connection to others. The individual’s job is to learn to cultivate this kind of attachment to the whole.

In many meditative practices, there is the concept of interdependence; the goal is to learn to step beyond the false barriers that separate us as individuals and to see how interdependent and interrelated everyone and everything in the world is. I think this may be what Balaam learned, according to the Netivot Shalom – to view things not piecemeal, but as a whole.

Partly this view comes from being up high (Balaam viewed the Israelites from atop various high points). We went hiking this week and climbed a mountain. From the top, the world does look more integrated – you can see whole fields and whole mountains, whole roads and towns; the trees suddenly form themselves into forests. The world makes more sense, seems more of a single piece from up there, and you can feel how you, as a little person amidst it all, are a part of this whole. This is the view that leads to blessings and to goodness, because it is the way of connection. The way of cursing relies on the disjointed view that separates us all, the illusion that we are separate. Balak was right to suggest that cursing required the view of only a small portion of the people, but it is ultimately the Balaam eye view – a view of the whole – that we are after.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Parashat Hukat: In Memory of Joel Linsider, z"l

Our very dear friend Joel Linsider, z”l, passed away this week. He was a person whose life was deeply intertwined with Torah texts, so that it seems significant that he left us on the week of this particular parsha, parashat Hukat, a parsha whose theme is death.

The parsha begins with the red heifer ritual, a procedure used to purify individuals contaminated by an encounter with a corpse. And it also includes, at its beginning, Miriam’s death, and toward its end, Aaron’s death.

What strikes me about these descriptions of death is that they are centered not on the experience of death for the one who is dying, but on the experience of death for those who remain. The red heifer ritual sets us up with this perspective: death has some effect on the living, some effect that must be ritually responded to.

The deaths of Miriam and Aaron are similarly framed. The ancient commentaries are quick to draw a connection between Miriam’s death and the Israelite complaint about thirst that immediately follows. Miriam’s death caused this complaint because Miriam, in her life, provided something that only she could provide and that therefore disappeared upon her death – a well of fresh water.

That’s what happens when someone dies--we are all left crying out in thirst; we feel as if a vital source of water has suddenly dried up. No one else can really quite provide in the same way. Moshe, in the story that follows, tries to get water out of a rock for the people. He succeeds, but in a clunky manner, hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, hitting it twice to make it work, . . . He just can’t do it the way she did; hers was a natural, regular flow.

When Aaron dies, we hear that the people cried for him for 30 days. 30 days?! The midrash explains that it is because of his special peace-making trait, that he was constantly involved in bringing people together, that the people cried for so long after his death. Another midrash notes that, as with Miriam, something difficult happens immediately following Aaron’s death – there is an attack by the Canaanites. What provoked their attack at this particular moment? The midrash explains that Aaron’s death caused the divine cloud of protection which had accompanied them up to this point to disappear; the Cannaanites saw this and attacked. This cloud, like Miriam’s well, only accompanied the people due to Aaron’s special merit, says the midrash; when he died, the loss was felt; his special contribution, his special ability to make peace and to bring God’s peace and protection into the camp, was suddenly gone.

When someone dies, we lose his special contribution to the world. Joel Linsider is gone. Like the people after Miriam and Aaron’s deaths, we are pained at the loss; we cry out in thirst for his special Torah, for his special way of being in the world.

Each person is an individual with a special gift he brings to the world – this is a point that makes life – each individual life -- worth living, but also makes it hard to lose any one special person in the world. May Joel’s memory be for a blessing. I feel grateful for the gift of his Torah and of his friendship to myself and my family and of his model as a person of humility, faith, intelligence, humor and integrity. His passing has left us with an unquenchable thirst for his company and his Torah.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Parashat Korach: On Stepping Aside

The problem with Korach, says the Netivot Shalom, is that he had too much yeshut, too much sense of his own “existence,” the importance of his own place and ego in the world.

“A person who is in the aspect of yesh [“existence”], who takes up space in his own eyes -- it seems to him that his fellow is bothering him and standing in his way. Even if the friend has not done any harm to him in any way, because of his trait of yeshut [his concern for his own existence], he has the feeling that he is bothering him and taking up his place, and out of this he comes into conflict” (Netivot Shalom on Parashat Korach).

Too much ego, too much concern about ourselves and our own existence, is what leads us into conflict with others. Korach felt that Moshe and Aharon had what he should have; they were occupying his space, he felt, standing in his way, bothering him by their very existence, all because he felt strongly the importance of his own self.

On the other hand, the way of peace, says the Netivot Shalom, is the way of ayin, of nothingness, of self-abnegation. When we become like “nothing” in our own eyes – through constant breaking down of the ego and submission of the self to God, according to Hasidic thought – then no one stands in our way; we feel that no one is bothering us and are at peace with the world. Moshe was known for his humility, his ability to see himself as nothing, as he says of himself and his brother, nachnu mah – “We, who are we?” (Ex 16:7).

I am reminded of a Dr. Seuss story about two Zaxes. The north-going Zax and the south-going Zax are each going on their way on the same road, when they bump into each other. Each one refuses to move to the side, insisting that the road is his. They stand there for years, decades, stuck in conflict, while the world builds bridges and roads and buildings all around them.

That’s what it is to be in this kind of a Korach ego conflict; it means to be stuck in a spot where you are unable to step aside for your fellow, where you feel that another’s existence stands in the way of your own, where your particular personal road, your personhood, is the most important thing in the world. It means holding a grudge over some slight against your ego, insisting on your view just because it is yours, or being jealous when it is you (or your child) that isn’t the one picked for an honor. It means viewing the world as your own personal road north or south, never stepping to the side for another.

It’s really mostly ourselves that we hurt in this way. The Talmud reads the first words of the parsha, vayikah Korach, as indicating that Korach made a bad “purchase” (mekach) for himself (Sanhedrin 109b). Refusing to step aside, to learn to push our ego concerns to the side, means becoming stuck. The world swirls and moves forward around us, but we, through our blind allegiance to ego, cannot move forward, cannot join that swirling movement.

Negation of the self sounds harsh and unappealing. Perhaps it is easier to think of it as a connectedness to something larger than ourselves. The Hasidic commentators point out that Korach makes a fundamental mistake in his assertion that kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim¸”The whole congregation, they are all holy.” Yes, the whole congregation is kadosh, holy, but not in the plural, kedoshim, as separate individuals. Rather, holiness only exists when the whole congregation is in the singular, at peace, each individual yielding, not worrying about his individual place on the road, but thinking of herself as a part of the whole.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Parashat Shelah: On Faith and Large Carrots

Is the glass half empty or half full? It all depends on your perspective.

That’s the difference between the 10 scouts and the 2 scouts in this week’s parsha. They all saw the same reality: A land so fertile that both its fruit and its inhabitants were extraordinarily large. Is this “information” a cause for celebration – God has given us a great land—or a cause for despair – we will never be able to conquer these giants? It is all a matter of perspective.

Everything can be skewed. The over-sized grapes which should have been a source of gratitude and excitement, instead illicit a kind of fear – it is as if the land is too bountiful for their tastes, bountiful in a kind of creepy, unnatural way. That’s the way it is in life. Even when things seem not just good, but over-the-top great, we can find a way to view them negatively.

The problem is a lack of trust. The 10 negative scouts say that the land is a “land that devours its inhabitants.” Rashi explains that they came to this conclusion because everywhere they went in the land, people were occupied with burials. God caused this to happen, says Rashi, so that the inhabitants of the land would be so preoccupied with their dead that the Israelite scouts would go undetected and unharmed. But these scouts had no trust; they could not see that both the over-sized grapes and the dead inhabitants were signs of God’s care for them; they assumed the worst.

Such perspectives – both good and bad – do not just frame the reality of the present; they shape the reality of the future. The 10 scouts who said concerning the conquest of the land – “It can’t be done” – in fact did not do it, but died in the desert. The 2 scouts – Joshua and Caleb – who said “We can surely do it” – led a successful conquest of the land. Faith makes things happen, creates the positive outcome it foresees.

In the classic children’s story The Carrot Seed, the father and the mother, the sister and the brother, all say of the carrot: “It won’t come up.” But the little boy has faith, and because of his faith, he tends the garden; he waters it and weeds it, and out of his faith comes not just any carrot, but the largest carrot ever seen, carried away in a wheelbarrow. Faith creates large carrots. It tends their seeds, makes them grow and blossom.

The scouts were given a vision of their future – over-sized grapes, like the little boy’s large carrot. But most of them could not see, could not really believe that this was their future. And so they could not do the work needed to be done to get there.

We are all scouts, travelling through life, taking in the sights and evaluating them: Good or bad? Will it/we succeed or fail? The trick is to be like Joshua and Caleb, to maintain a can-do, positive attitude, to have faith that things will work out for the best, because it is through such faith that we ensure that things do work out for the best; it is through such faith that we are capable of growing giant carrots and conquering giant giants.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Parashat BeHa'alotekha: On Not Going it Alone

Torah – Jewish life -- is not a solitary project. No one can do it alone. It requires an entire camp of 12 tribes to carry the Torah in its midst.

In this week’s parsha, we see what happens when the Torah is carried by one person alone, even if that person is Moshe. All around him, the people start complaining. They have left Mount Sinai and begun their long journey through the great wide desert – and they have lost faith. How will we eat? How will we survive? Their “souls” are “dry,” they say; even though they are daily fed by the manna, they are restless and faithless malcontents.

The Torah cannot exist in such an environment of general faithlessness. Even Moshe can’t maintain his faith surrounded by such voices of negativity – When God tells him the people will eat meat, Moshe is uncharacteristically incredulous: There are 600,000 of them; how are you going to provide meat for so many? See how low even Moshe’s faith has sunk through the general malaise of the camp! Indeed, God is angry: Hayad Hashem tiktzar? Why are you underestimating Me?

There is only one response to such pervasive faithlessness – to increase the number of people carrying the spirit of God, the spirit of Torah in the camp. Moshe cannot carry this alone; even to maintain his own faith, he needs the support of a community of believers. (Maybe that’s why Jewish prayer is generally done in a minyan; a community of people praying together helps support each other’s faith).

And so 70 elders are picked to receive a piece of the ruach, the “spirit.” Note that the elders are not appointed, as elsewhere, to help Moshe judge the people or care for them in some practical way. They are given some of Moshe’s divine spirit, so that they can support a sense of hope and faith in the camp. Their job is to improve morale.

Moshe has a deep understanding of the nature of the divine project. He knows that he cannot do it alone; he understands that the Torah was not given to an individual, but to a nation, and that it is the nation as a whole that must carry it forward. And so, when he hears about Eldad and Medad – two men prophesying within the camp, outside of his supervision – he does not punish them (as Joshua suggests), but celebrates them. Umi yiten kol am Hashem nevi’im. If only the whole people of God were prophets! This is a people of God, not a people of Moshe. The more Torah, the more divine spirit within the people, the better, whether or not it goes through me, says Moshe.

Moshe exults in the spread of the divine spirit because he understands that this is what it is all about, creating a community in which God’s spirit resides; he, as an individual, cannot do it alone. Perhaps he is especially pleased that it is a pair of prophets working together; working together is the only way to maintain the faith, to carry the Torah in one’s midst.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Parashat Naso: On Peace

Veyasem Lekha Shalom – And He will grant you peace. This is the culminating blessing of the tri-partite priestly blessing in this week’s parsha. It is the highest of the blessings, as the gradual increase in the number of words in each part of the priestly blessing -- 3, 5, 7 – makes clear (a point made by Nechama Leibowitz). The midrash Sifre Bamidbar says – Gadol HaShalom. Great is peace.

Gadol HaShalom, the midrash says over and over, and lists a series of proofs that indeed peace is among the greatest of Torah virtues. Gadol HaShalom because God is willing to cede His honor for the sake of shalom, for the sake of shalom bayit, household peace between spouses. This week’s parsha also deals with the sotah, the woman who is suspected of adultery. What the midrash is referring to is that as part of the test she undergoes, God’s name is erased in the water she is to drink, showing that He yields His honor for the sake of shalom.

Yielding is part of the essence of the pursuit of peace. Peace generally comes at the price of some other value. In this case, it is God’s Honor. The other example the midrash offers is that of Sarah and Avraham, where God purposely misreports Sarah’s assertion that her husband is old in order to avoid causing strife between husband and wife. Here it is the value of truth that is surrendered in the pursuit of peace.

This is our daily experience of peace, that it requires some ceding, some relinquishing of our strong hold on our own sense of honor and often, also of our sense of truth. We think we are in the right; often maybe we are in the right (on some cosmic level maybe both positions are “true”), but that does not help the cause of peace. Learning to make those concessions, to swallow pride and our innate sense of “justice” is the cost of peace.

We are not just called on to pursue peace in our own relationships, but to help others in this goal. Hava’at shalom beyn adam lehaveiro, “bringing peace between a person and his friend,” is one of the 10 things listed in our morning prayers whose fruits we eat in this world as well as the world to come. God is our model. He took care in the phrasing of his words to Avraham in order to avoid causing any conflict. We are often less careful with our words – sometimes we may even purposely repeat something in a way that incites conflict.

The midrash also points to a human model, Aaron, a known peace-lover. It is said that when two people were in a fight, he would go to one and say: “So and so is very upset about the fight. He is beating himself up about it and feels that he acted terribly toward you.” Then he would go and say the same thing to the other party, so that when the two met, they would embrace and forgive each other.

Aaron, like God, was a catalyst to peace. We – rightly – worry about global peace. But peace begins at home, with those around us. Perhaps that is why we say of God in our prayers first, Oseh Shalom Bimromav – He makes peace in His heavens, and then, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom Aleinu – He will make peace for us. It is out of the strength of God’s ability to make peace in His home above that He can make peace in the world below. Peace spreads outward.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shavu'ot and Parashat Bamidbar: On Loyalty

Ve’Rut davkah bah. “But Ruth stuck with her.” Unlike Orpah, the other daughter-in law, Ruth stuck with her mother-in-law, Naomi. She stuck with her past the point of self-interest; Naomi makes clear that she will have no more sons to give her to marry. This act of Ruth’s is not just hesed, “loving-kindness/loyalty” but hesed shel emet, true hesed, the kind of hesed associated with the care for the dead, an act that, like Ruth’s, cannot possibly expect any return.

Each year we read the book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavu’ot, our celebration of the giving of the Torah. Why? What is the connection? There are many answers. The story takes place in the same season as Shavu’ot, the spring harvest time. Further, it enacts one of the precepts associated in the Torah with Shavu’ot and the harvest, the precept of pe’ah/ leket, leaving the corners and the droppings of your field for the poor.

But perhaps there is also a deeper connection between this notion of hesed and the acceptance of the Torah. When people look at the Torah and at Jewish practice, they often ask the question: What will I get out of it – spiritually, emotionally, even practically? The lesson of Ruth is that this is the wrong question to ask, at least initially. What is required is hesed, “loyalty,” a kind of steadfast devotion, known as dveikut -- from the same root as davkah as in Rut davkah bah, “Ruth stuck with her” -- a kind of stick-to-itness that does not look for returns.

Indeed, according to Jeremiah this is how God views our initial agreement to follow Him into the desert, as a sign of our unwavering loyalty and devotion. Zakharti lakh hesed ne’urayikh, “I remember the hesed¸ devotion of your youth,” says God, “how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer 2:2). “A land not sown.” Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, was also, from Ruth’s point of view, a land not sown, a barren woman with no hope for future progeny. Ruth followed her in spite of her barrenness, like the people followed God into the barren wilderness, purely out of a personal sense of loyalty.

There are, of course, rewards for such devotion. In the end, Ruth marries the prosperous and kind Boaz and has a child whose descendants include King David (and therefore, ultimately, the Messiah). Sticking with what seems to be a barren woman, a barren land, eventually does bear fruit. Indeed, devotion to the Torah does lead to a good life, a life of fulfillment and deep spiritual rewards. All that is true. But it is nonetheless important that these rewards are built on a sense of devotion and loyalty. Sometimes the Torah does seem like a barren woman, a barren land; it seems to be all work, with no reward. It takes a sense of stick-to-itness, of devotion, of long-term steadfastness, to stay the course.

Partly, the message here is that our attitude toward God and Torah should be a relational one. The highest form of love is the love that is not based on self-interest, that does not look for a return, that does not think: “If I am friendly with her, she can help me move forward in my career,” but simply loves the other out of selfless devotion. It is this type of relationship that we aim for in marriage, and it is this type of relationship that the Torah hopes is the basis our ongoing relationship with God. On Shavu’ot, before we re-accept the Torah, we remind ourselves of the need for a Ruth-like sense of hesed and dveikut, loyalty and devotion.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Parshiyyot Behar-Bekhukotai: Linked In

In the Yovel (jubilee) year, the Torah says there will be dror lekhol yoshveha, “freedom to all the land’s inhabitants (Lev 25:10).” Why to all? The law is that slaves go free. Not everyone is a slave. Why is there a broad declaration of freedom for all? Because none of us is free as long as any of us is a slave. Our lots are intertwined.

That is why, if your fellow falls on hard times, you are to hold on tight to him, bring him in to live with you, help him rise out of the hard times (25:35). Vehai ahikha imakh, your brother should live with you. With you. He shares in your good fortune and you share in his burden. Your lives, your hayut, in the Sefat Emet’s words – your living essences – are dependent on one another. All deriving from the same Source, they are unbreakably linked.

Vehazakta bo, the Torah says – hold on to him. Don’t let him fall further into a downward spiral, says Rashi; stop the trend now, before it gets so bad that it becomes impossible to help. But the term vehazakta bo can also be read (playfully) as a reference to one’s own process of growth – Become strong through him. You thought you didn’t have anything to give someone, but here, through the very act of giving, you show yourself to be strong, to be connected to others and therefore linked in to the Source of all life, all strength.

Hazan et ha'olam kulo -- He who nourishes the whole world in its entirety, we say of God in Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals. Note, says the Sefat Emet, that we speak of His nourishing of the world, not of an individual; it is to the world as an entirety that He provides enough food; in God’s eyes we are a unit, and it is only when we act as one – providing each for the other and living in connection -- that we feel the fullness of His blessing.

We aren’t just talking about wealth or food here. We are talking about a state of mind. A state of mind that sees the interconnectedness of human beings, that understands that our separateness as individuals is in a way an illusion that masks our deep interdependence. Perhaps that is why Rabbi Akiva thought that the precept VeAhavta LeRe’akha Kamokha – love your neighbor as yourself – was the principle rule of the Torah; the key to a religious life is to learn to see the connections, to view others as if they are yourself, to understand that there is only true dror, freedom, in this world for any of us when the whole land is free. The call to declare freedom for all on the Yovel year is perhaps unrealizable, a kind of utopian dream, but it is also aspirational, a declaration of what we hold dear.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Parashat Emor and Sefirat HaOmer: On the In-Between State

Why wasn’t the Torah given to Israel immediately upon leaving Egypt? It would have made sense. They were wandering, feeling lost, for those almost two months. They could have used the assurance and direction of a revelation at Mount Sinai.

Why do we have this period of Sefirat HaOmer, the 49 day count between Passover and Shavu’ot? Why not go immediately from exodus to Torah? The two are clearly linked; Moshe told Pharaoh from the start that the people are leaving Egypt in order to worship God; when God appeared to Moshe at Mount Sinai in the burning bush, He told Moshe that the people would return to this very mountaintop to worship Him. The purpose of exodus was the revelation at Mount Sinai. That was its destination point. So why have this counting period between the two?

To teach us that the Torah is not acquired easily. Netivot Shalom quotes the Mesilat Yesharim as saying that tehilato be’hishtadlut vesofo bematanah – “Its beginning is through struggle and its end is a gift.” First a person has to work hard on her own, put some effort in; she can’t make it all the way on her own; the end result is a gift from above, but the gift only comes to one who has struggled. Enlightenment, or revelation, as the saying goes, only comes to the prepared mind, to the prepared soul.

Fortunately, we are given a head start in our struggle, a push in the right direction. As Kedushat Levi says, on Passover we have the initial experience of revelation and an awakening from above, but then we are left, during the time of Sefirah, to continue that awakening from below. Usefartaem Lakhem, “Count for yourselves” – You have to do it yourselves, out of your own volition and initiative.

It is no accident that we have this period of Sefirah between the two holidays, that we are called on to make our own way from the one to the other. I think that most of us lead most of our lives precisely in this Sefirah state. We have some vague memory of a past revelation buried inside us, and we can occasionally catch glimpses of a revelation in front of us as well. The daily work is in this middle period of the Sefirah, in our own struggle to find direction, to be able to see Mount Sinai in the distance, and to feel its gravitational pull. The Hasidic commentaries understand sefirah as coming from sappir, or sapphire, referring to a clarity or brightness. The point of this time-period is to create within oneself a clarity of vision, a sense of purpose.

Like the Israelites in the desert, we are all sometimes wonderers, winding our way through life, lost and directionless. Sefirat HaOmer is a way of asserting that our lives are colored by revelation on all sides of us, so that our current state looks backward and forward and is part of some chain. We count each day to remind ourselves of these connections, to help us feel, despite our existential bewilderment, that we are grounded, that we can see the revelation just over the horizon, and that each step is part of a path forward, given a sense of direction by its surrounding poles of clarity.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Parashat Kedoshim: Beyond the Minimum

Kedoshim Tehiyu. “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” So begins the second of this week’s two parshiyyot. What does it mean to be kadosh, holy?

According to Rashi, kedushah, holiness, involves the separation from the prohibited sexual unions listed in the end of the previous parsha (as well as the end of Kedoshim). But according to Nachmanides, being kadosh does not mean keeping the bare minimum of prohibitions assigned by the Torah; it means striving for more. As Nachmanides points out, it is easy for a person to be a naval bereshut haTorah, “a vile person within the permissible realm of the Torah.” It is easy, in other words, to officially keep all the laws of the Torah, but to nonetheless act in disgusting ways, to eat only permitted foods but to eat them in an uncivilized beastly manner. So the Torah added on this general statement – kedoshim tehiyu, to let us know that we should do more than the bare minimum.

Kedushah then has a kind of reaching quality to it. It is not quantifiable; it has no maximum. It is a process, a journey, an attitude of striving. This is the nature of many of the laws of Kedoshim – love your neighbor as yourself; show respect to the elderly; do not go around spreading gossip; leave the corners of your fields for the poor. These laws involve going beyond minimum neighborly decency; they offer us a picture of the kind of loving society we should be aiming for.

The nature of Kedoshim’s laws is highlighted by a midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:5) which draws parallels between them and the 10 commandments. Ari Hart on the Uri L’Tzedek website (a great new Orthodox social justice movement), commenting on this midrash, points out that the 10 commandments create a floor, a required minimum, for a functional society, while parashat Kedoshim imagines a people striving toward a higher goal.

Thus, while the 10 commandments prohibit false testimony against a fellow in a court case, parashat Kedoshim prohibits any type of gossip or slander. While the 10 commandments prohibit jealousy, Parashat Kedoshim says, “Wish for your neighbor what you would wish for yourself” (ve’ahavta le’reakha kamokha). Do more than not wish him evil; actively desire good for him. The 10 commandments say “Do not murder,” while Kedoshim says Lo Ta’amod al dam re’ekha – Do not stand by while the blood of your fellow is being spilled. One is a minimum call to not yourself commit a murder; the other is a call for active intervention on behalf of your suffering fellow in the world. Do not stand idly by if you can save him.

They say that the key to ending a culture of bullying among children is to change the culture of “bystanders,” to convince those who stand by and either support or simply watch the bullying to actively intervene in some way. This is the message of Parashat Kedoshim. Yes, the bare minimum is the 10 commandments; first make sure you yourself are not being the bully. But beyond that there is a world to actively fix. Being kadosh means doing more than you are required to do, not just refraining from evil action, but helping to create a culture of love and generosity.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Parshiyyot Tazria-Metzora: On Looking Deeply

An old Yiddish joke tells of a Jewish immigrant to America who gets sick; his American-born son takes him to the doctor. The doctor examines him and says: “It’s a virus.” The son reports back to his father, in Yiddish, “He says it’s caused by ‘a virus’.” The father looks at the son and repeats quizzically: “Averus? [Yiddish for ‘sins’] -- I already knew that.”

In this joke, the father reveals an ancient perspective on illness: that physical maladies are a reflection of internal, spiritual problems. The rabbis explain the central issue in this week’s parshiyyot, tzara’at -- an on-the-surface ailment that can afflict one’s skin as well as one’s clothing and one’s home – in a similar way. Based on biblical clues like Miriam’s experience of tzara’at as a punishment for her slander of Moshe, the rabbis say that tzara’at is caused by sin – in particular, lashon hara¸ ill speech.

At work here is an understanding of sickness quite different from the Western medical model which generally focuses only on the physical aspects of a sickness. The sick person in these parshiyyot does not go to a doctor to be healed, but to a priest. Physical illness, says the Torah, may be a symptom of spiritual illness. Similarly, when we pray for a sick person, we pray for refu’at hanefesh verefu’at haguf, “healing of the soul and healing of the body.” The Torah takes a holistic approach, asserting the essential connectedness of body and soul.

It is a matter of looking beneath the surface. We tend to be very concrete in our thinking, seeing only the physical side of things. But, as the Netivot Shalom points out, it is the job of the priest to look “deeply;” he checks whether the skin-rash has penetrated the surface, is amok, “deep,” whether it is merely a physical rash, or rather a sign of some deeper internal malady.

Learning to look deeply, to see beyond the concrete, is what the Torah project is all about, according to many Hasidic masters. There is a famous midrash, cited by Rashi, that says that the reason the homes in the land of Israel were subject to tzara’at is so that the Israelites would knock them down and discover the treasures the Amorites had hidden within the walls. One Hasidic interpretation (Kedushat Levi) reads these treasures as our own internal sparks, caught inside our physical walls. External tzara’at may be a signpost of some internal trouble, but it may also be a sign that the true treasures are internal, that it is time to break down those external barriers and find what is inside.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Warsaw ghetto rebbe, wrote, before the war, a book called bnei machsahavah tovah (recently translated as “Conscious Community”) in which he outlines a strategy for training one’s mind to perceive God in the universe. What you see with your plain eyes, he says, is merely the outer form; one can learn to perceive the inner being of things, to feel God’s constant presence in the world.

This week we celebrate Yom HaAtzmau’t, Israel Independence Day. Such a miraculous occurrence as the existence of the State of Israel is a physical signpost pointing us to the existence of a deeper reality. May we learn to look deeply, like the priest, and see the treasures that lie beneath.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Parashat Shmini: Some Post-Passover Thoughts

It’s Parashat Shmini, the parsha of the “eighth day,” the day after the 7 days of miluim, of practicing the erection and consecration of the Tabernacle. This is the day when all the lessons learned actually come into practice.

And it feels like the eighth day, in terms of holidays. We’ve had 7 (okay, 8, but it should have been 7) days of Passover. And now is the eighth day, when we put all those lessons into practice. What do we take with us from Passover into life?

As if to answer this question, we are immediately confronted, post-Passover, with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We go from a celebration of redemption to a remembering of tragedy and suffering. What is the relationship between these two?

They are both practices of memory. We have 6 zechirot, 6 acts of memory we are commanded to do (see your siddur for a complete list), and these are 2 of them: remember that you left Egypt and remember the terrible things Amalek did to you. Remember that there is redemption in the world and remember that there is cruelty in the world.

The two are necessarily linked. Remembering the Holocaust is a difficult thing. One can easily fall into the pit of despair with such memories. One begins to feel that the world is essentially an evil place where cruel things have happened and are still happening at this very moment. How can we bear such thoughts, such memories? As a people, how do we avoid a descent into hopelessness?

We can only face such memories fortified with the lessons of Passover, the holiday of hope. Passover teaches that there is ultimate redemption, that one must hold firmly to the belief that the world is moving in the right direction. Leaving Egypt does happen for those who are in straits.

But remembering our exodus from Egypt is not enough. If we did only that, we would be complacent, content in our sense of having already been redeemed. Our obligation is also to remember Amalek in the world, to remember that there still is cruelty and along with this memory, comes the obligation to erase its presence, to work at the eradication of evil from the world.

Immersed in a sense of evil in the world we could not fight it. It would overwhelm us. One cannot save a drowning person unless one is able to swim securely oneself. And so, we arm ourselves for the fight with the tools garnered in our Passover celebration – the faith in the ultimate triumph of good, in the possibility of redemption.

This is the eighth day, the day we take the memory of redemption to help us confront the memory of tragedy and cruelty.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

More on Passover: On Children and Cleaning

Passover is a time for questions. Here are two I have been pondering. Please add your thoughts in the comment section below.

On Children:
Children stand at the center of this holiday. The Torah says vehigadeta levinkha. “And you shall tell your child” the story of our exodus from Egypt. It is on this basis that we have a seder and a haggadah, a book of “teling” to begin with --- for the children. But why? Why are children so central to this holiday of freedom?

A few thoughts:
1) Perhaps telling the story to our children means learning to hear and tell the story in the way that children do – with wonder, excitement, and a no-bounds sense of identification. Children know what it means to see yourself “as if” you left Egypt. They play those kinds of imaginary games all the time. We begin the Seder with questions to encourage not just the children to ask but also ourselves to ask, to look with wonder at what is new and different, to be curious and engaged like a child.

2) The holiday of Passover is about both children – the future – and also the past – retelling our national history. The point of the holiday is to preserve this link between past and future. Doing so embeds each of us in a chain, makes us and our children a part of a larger, eternal network stretching backward and forward in time. And, in so doing, we do attain a kind of freedom, a freedom from mortality: we escape our individual straits, the confines of our short individual lives.

3) The holiday is also a holiday of hope. Think of the contrast between Tisha b’Av and Passover. On Tisha b’Av we mourn the sad events of our past. On Passover we assert with great clarity that redemption happens, that difficult times always do eventually come to an end. It is this climate of faith and hope that is an essential backdrop for raising and educating children. Passover is a holiday of education because it is a holiday of hope. Children are the future; they are themselves signs of hope, like the spring rebirth after the winter sleep. To face the life that awaits them, we need to fortify them with hope and faith in the possibility of redemption.

On Cleaning:
What is the connection between cleaning and Passover, between the act of ridding ourselves of all our hametz and the process of achieving freedom and redemption? There is something about freedom, something about redemption that requires us to remove certain obstacles. What are these obstacles?

The puffiness of hametz has been traditionally connected to the puffiness of the ego, the constant human pursuit of honor, and certainly such preoccupations are a kind of enslavement, an obstacle to both freedom and redemption.

But the obstacle that strikes me most clearly this year is fear. We cannot be ourselves and play the role we are meant to play in the world if we have fear – fear of physical pain or harm, fear of evil-doers, fear of new things, fear of intimacy, fear of social disapproval or embarrassment. Fear keeps us preoccupied with the “what if” instead of focusing on the present moment of connection and holiness. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Seder night is designated as a leyl shimurim, a “night of guarding,” of divine protection. For one night, we imagine what it is like to shed these fears like bread crumbs and feel the possibility of a bold freedom.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

For Passover: Thoughts on Ha Lahma Anya

Ha lachma anya. “This is the bread of affliction.” So begins the Magid section of the Passover Seder. It begins in the past – “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt.” And it ends in the future, with the hope for an eventual complete redemption -- “This year we are in bondage; next year may we be free people.”

What happens in the middle, in the present moment? How do we move from our past of suffering to a future of redemption? Kol dikhfin yete ve’yekhul. Kol ditzrikh yete veyifsach. “Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever has needs, let him come and take part in our Passover celebration.” We move from suffering to redemption through acts of caring for those who are in need.

We begin by remembering our own ancestors’ troubles. That is not hard. If Egypt seems too removed, we have more recent wounds to remind us. The next step is to turn those memories into a catalyst for compassion and action on behalf of those who are currently suffering. This idea is placed in the middle, at the heart of the ha lahmay anya passage; helping others is the link between our past and our future; our ability to use our memory of past suffering to help others is what will ultimately bring on redemption.

Redemption, however, does not come through our actions alone, but requires divine assistance. The Haggadah makes this point by leaving out Moshe’s name in the story, but we shouldn’t forget that God follows human initiative. There is the Hasidic notion that it is our job, through our actions, to bring down God’s presence to earth. In the Exodus story, the first person to show compassion to the Israelites is Moshe. He steps out of his palace and sees their troubles and tries to help. His initial attempts (killing the Egyptian and reprimanding the Israelite) may seem insignificant and useless, but what they did succeed in doing is to call God down to earth to do His own work of redemption. Divine help requires human initiative, begins with human signs of caring.

Ha Lachma Anya ends strangely with the assertion that “This year we are in bondage.” What do you mean we are now in bondage? We are free; the whole point of the story is that God already freed us! The statement is a reminder that the work of redemption is a continual process, that you and I at this moment may be free, but we are never truly free until everyone is. When we break the matzah into two halves in yachatz, we are again reminded of the continued brokenness of this world. We do not break the matzah into two equal halves. The world is not symmetrical, not fair. There are the haves and the have-nots. There are those, like us, who sit in freedom and comfort, and others who are hungry, enslaved or behind bars. In a redeemed world, we would all be reclined -- kulanu mesubin.

This Passover, may we find a way to participate in some small way in the process of redemption!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Parashat Vayikra: On Connection

Vayikra el Moshe. He [God] called to Moshe. Thus begins the third book of the Torah this week. Commentators hone in on this call, pointing out that there is something deep and special here. God, in choosing not just to relay information, but first to call Moshe to come close – “Come here, Moshe. I need to tell you something” – tells us that what He is looking for is not just a messenger, someone to do His bidding, but a relationship, a partner, intimacy.

Rashi relates this call to the call of the angels we say in the kedushah prayer – vekara zeh el zeh ve’amar. “They call one to the other and say.” The angelic song of praise to God – kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, “Holy, holy, holy” – is made up of back and forth calls between the angels. They sing, they exist, in relation to one another, zeh el zeh; they are intimate partners in the work of God.

Similarly, it seems that Rashi is implying, God’s call to Moshe is one which invites Moshe to engage in an intimate partnership with God [!], to join Him in a zeh el zeh relationship that will do the work of God on earth.

This first call to come close to God is actually what the whole book of Vayikra is about. The word for sacrifices, discussed in such detail here, is korbanot, from the root karov, close. Their purpose is to bring one close to God, to create a bond between oneself and the divine. In order to bring a korban, one must step out of one’s own sphere and come into relation with Another.

Nor is the Other always God. The book of Vayikra, in addition to containing many sacrificial and priestly laws, also contains a large number of ethical laws about how to treat one’s fellow. Indeed, the terms akhikha, re’ekha and amitekha, “your brother,” “your fellow” and “your kinsman” appear frequently in this context. The most famous of these laws is ve’ahavta le’re’akha kamokha. “Love your fellow as yourself.” You should consider yourself to be in intimate connection to these others, feel that they are in some way “like you,” a part of you, that, as with the angels, they are the zeh to your zeh.

The call, then, is a call to come out of the self and into connection with others, the Other, as well as all those others around you that are a piece of Him. Such connections are the true korbanot.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Parashat Vayekhel/Pekudei: On Active Participation

I have never done well in lecture classes. Passive listening does not enter my brain in the same way that active participatory learning does.

I think it was the same for the Israelites in these parshiyyot. They had stood at Sinai and heard the commandments. Then they had waited passively for 40 days to “receive” the rest of the Torah that Moshe was bringing down from on high. But reception, kabalat haTorah, was not enough. They needed to take an active part in their religious life, not just to be receivers of Torah but to be makers of Torah.

The people’s enthusiasm for active participation is clear from the first of this week’s two parshiyyot, Vaykhel, in which we find that Moshe’s call for donations and volunteers is met by overabundant giving. Everyone’s heart was moved. They came “men on top of women,” until the point when they had to call out Day!, enough! Such was their enthusiasm, the level of their energy. People want to be part of things, want to use their hearts and their minds and their hands to create a communal space in which God can dwell. They just have to be given an appropriate opportunity.

The Sefat Emet reads this outpouring as a mark of the Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Torah, that is inside of us, bursting to come forth. God gave us the (Written) Torah on Sinai, but then He also said: Kekhu me’itkhem terumah lashem¸”Bring from yourself a donation to God” (Exod. 35:5). Bring from yourself, from inside yourself. Be a contributing member of Torah. Do not just receive, but also give, create, participate.

Such was God’s plan. He gives to us, and we give to Him. It is a dynamic, reciprocal relationship. He created the world for us to dwell in, and we create a physical space for him to dwell in. Some have suggested that the command to build the Tabernacle was merely a result of the Golden Calf sin, not an original part of God’s plan. I don’t think so. The dynamic of receiving and giving between God and humans is intrinsic to the relationship -- the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, God’s word, and our word. The Golden Calf merely marks the border into idolatry, marks the place in which our word, our work, our creativity is no longer in dialogue with His word, but exists separately, on its own, as a form of hubris, an insistence that we alone are creators. But the need for a dynamic relationship of give and take between God and humans was always part of the plan.

The Sefat Emet calls this time of giving and creativity in relation to the Tabernacle a time of great simchah, joy. Indeed, the terms used here for contributions, nasa lev and terumah, both refer to a “lifting,” a lifting of the donation and the lifting of the heart. Giving, contributing, being a part of a divine-human communal project is something that lifts the heart and the spirit, one of the highest forms of joy.

Just as we imagine that every one of us stood at Sinai and received the Torah, perhaps we should also imagine that every one of us took an active part in the communal building of a divine space on earth, that every one of us is still engaged in such a project, each according to the gift and the skill that lifts her heart.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Parshat Tetzaveh and Purim: On Dressing Up

My children love dress-up. They put on a cape and are transformed. They become brave warriors or super-heroes with special powers. The clothes help them move out of their ordinary, simple selves, into a world of infinite capacity.

Why do we dress up on Purim? I think it is a lesson in self-transcendence, in the ability to shed the entrapments of personal concerns and ego issues and imagine ourselves differently.

Self-transcendence is what the High Priest spoken of in this week’s parsha has to do. After all, a high priest is really just an ordinary human being, one who happens to have a special job to perform. How does he manage to transform himself from an ordinary private person with his own personal concerns to a representative of the people to God? He gets dressed. This week’s parsha lists all the special clothing worn by priests in general, and by the High Priest in particular. When he puts on the breastplate of 12 stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel, the High Priest, like my children in their capes, is transformed. He has taken up the mantle of a messenger, ready to play his divinely assigned public role.

It isn’t always easy to transcend one’s personal issues, to rid oneself of any gnawing self-doubt about one’s ability to successfully perform the task, and to take on the designated role. Esther had trouble with it, was unsure she would succeed in her mission to approach the king. What did she do? “Esther dressed herself in royal apparel” (5:1). She “dressed up” as a queen, put on the clothes for the part, and somehow through this act of bravery and imagination, she found the strength and confidence of a queen.

How does dressing in a costume accomplish anything? Why not first feel that you are a certain kind of person and then put on the clothes that represent who you are? Because sometimes you are, like Esther, not sure who you are, not sure you can be a “queen” and play the role you have been handed. Dressing the part is an opportunity to imagine yourself differently, to imagine that you are capable of spectacular, brave, and mostly very competent deeds. Dressing up is a leap of imagination and courage; once you see yourself dressed the part, it is easier to imagine that you will be able to do it. It is a way of rethinking your definition of self from the outside in.

No one is born a President, born a parent or a teacher or a high priest. That first time, that first day necessarily involves a leap of imagination, a kind of play-acting of the part. Once you have “dressed up” that first time, it is easier to imagine yourself into such a role, to transcend your personal inhibitions and take up the mantle.

Maybe dressing up is not just for kids after all.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Parashat Mishpatim: On Compassion and Justice

Concern for the disadvantaged in society is a strong current in the Torah. Commandments concerning the ger, the stranger in your midst, appear 36 times in the Torah, more times than the commandment to keep Shabbat! In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, meaning “Laws,” there is a section dealing with these types of laws: One must not mistreat the stranger, the widow or the orphan, because you were once strangers and because God heeds their cries. You should lend money to the poor and if you take his garment as a pledge, you must return it at sunset so that he has something to lie with. Why? Again, because “If he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.”

These are laws that demand compassion of us, demand that we, like God, hear the cries of the mistreated in society. But the Torah does not stop there. Compassion alone does not a society make. In the same parsha, we are also enjoined that, when it comes to the court, one may not favor the poor. One must keep far from falsehood, strive toward truth and justice.

There is a need in society for both justice and mercy, for both judges and social workers. Children need parents who can offer them love and sympathy as well as firm boundaries.

God Himself is described as having both of these qualities, the Midat HaDin, the aspect of Justice, and the Midat HaRachamim, the aspect of mercy, sometimes understood as the masculine and feminine aspects of God. In the morning prayer of Barukh She’Amar, we say that God is both gozer umekayem, “Decrees and fulfills His decrees,” and merahem al habriyot, “Has compassion on all creatures.” One name for God, Shadday, has been interpreted as relating both to the word day, for “enough,” the God who set limits on the universe, and also shadayim, for “breasts,” the God who, like a mother, nourishes and protects His offspring.

We are meant to imitate God’s ways. Parashat Mishpatim teaches us that justice and mercy are not two separate things in the universe, but very much intertwined, in us who are little images of God, as in God Himself. We are enjoined to develop both sides of ourselves, to have the strength to be strict and just, to uphold truth and integrity, and to have the heart to listen and be compassionate, to cry with those who are crying and to lend an ear and a dime to those in need. May we find the wisdom to know when to employ each.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Parashat Yitro: On Kingship and Coveting

King Ahab desired the land next to his palace. It was owned by one Navot who had a vineyard on the plot. The king thought it would make a nice royal garden. He tried to buy the area from Navot, but Navot refused; the land had been in his family for generations. King Ahab was used to getting his way. He sulked and cried and refused to eat until his wife, Izevel (Jezebel) came up with a plan. She sent out a royal order to the local authorities asking them to find some people to falsely testify against Navot that he had blasphemed God and the king. The deed was done and Navot was stoned to death as pumishment for an uncommitted crime. The king took possession of the vineyard. (I Kings 21)

This is a story about the dangers of coveting someone else’s things (as Maimonides notes), the last of the 10 commandments. “Thou shalt not covet.” How can the Torah command us concerning a feeling? It starts inside the heart, as a kind of restless yearning for another’s things, but, as the story demonstrates, it quickly moves into the realm of action; indeed, because of his jealousy, Ahab violates three other of the 10 commandments as well, bearing false witness, stealing, and killing. Thoughts and deeds are intimately connected.

The first of the commandments is also a thought commandment: “I am the Lord your God.” And in a way, in violating that last coveting one, King Ahab also violated the first. What was the problem with his attitude? It was the problem of a king – namely, arrogance and ego-centrism. He thought he ruled the world, that whatever he wanted, he could have. His actions were a denial of the existence of a much grander King in this world.

King Ahab’s story is any coveter’s story writ large. Coveting is acting like a king, thinking that you somehow deserve what someone else has, that you are above others, that you have the power to decide who gets what in this world. As the Ahab story demonstrates, even thinking this way is extraordinarily dangerous.

The first commandment is the key to breaking such thoughts; it is the antidote to kingship feelings, reminding us of our small place in the universe and of a power that is beyond our comprehension. We are left with a sense of calm in place of the restlessness of coveting, and also with a feeling of comraderie for our fellow humans. If God is the only one above, then the rest of us are all down below together; none of us has complete control; we are all struggling along in the same boat, and so, in place of envy, we come to feel great joy at one another’s success.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Parashat Beshallach: On Singing

In this week’s parsha, the Israelites sing out to God after witnessing the wonders of the Red Sea. The word for song in Hebrew is shirah. The Sefat Emet says that shirah is connected to the word shurah, line. What happens when a person sings is that they draw a line between earth and heaven, a line between their own innermost spiritual point and its divine source. Singing is an expression of the understanding of this connection, of the feeling of having a spirit inside that wants to break out and rise up to be part of something larger.

When you sing, it actually does something to the world, says the Sefat Emet. When the Israelites sang at the Sea, they activated the songs of all the created beings in the Universe, the sun, the sky, the birds, the water, . . . Each creature has his own song to God and when the Israelites sang, the whole world sang with them. Perhaps that is why the layout of the Song at the Sea in the Torah looks like links of a chain; singing is a joining activity. It connects between earth and heaven and also between earth and earth.

The Israelites’ singing made an impression on the world, and also on the Torah, says the Sefat Emet. The layout of the Song in the Torah, like chains, is full of open spaces. What singing did was to open up the Torah, to open up its deep secrets for human discovery; singing is a kind of revelation, an uncovering of something deep inside oneself and deep in the Torah that is true and eternal.

“Let the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains sing for joy together!” (Ps. 98:8)