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.