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.