Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Parashat Shemot: The Calm within the Fire

The other day I told a friend about my frustration with myself at a certain persistent harmful habit of mind, a habit I was trying desperately to fight against. She said: Don’t fight it. That’s the problem. Just accept it.

I am confused over this issue. Should we strive to change (the world, ourselves, . . . ) or should we accept things as they are? My husband put up a sign on our fridge this week that says: Eyn adam met vehatzi ta’avato beyado. “No person dies having fulfilled even half of his desires.” This was certainly true of my father. He was a struggler to the very end. In fact, two weeks before he died, we had a lengthy conversation about techniques to improve a certain persistent harmful habit of mind of his. He died mid-work.

In Kaddish, we ask that God’s name be praised be’alma divra kere’utei, “in the world which He created as He saw fit.” Part of being a mourner, part of being a human being, is accepting the world as it is, recognizing that we are not in charge and that the world, and we, are exactly as God wanted us to be.

This is the feeling of Shabbat, and we carry it through the week with us, but still – we have work to do in the world on those other 6 days. So which is it – are we striving for change or learning to accept things as they are (itself a change of attitude)?

The burning bush of this week’s parsha seems a perfect reflection of the need to bring both of these modes into one space. The burning fire represents the drive in all of us to fix and struggle and change. We are strugglers, strivers, by our very nature, and this fire is a beautiful powerful thing. But we have to take care that it doesn’t consume us, that it burns brightly without destroying the essence, the presence, the stillness that lies underneath, perfect and untouched, whole and at peace in spite of the raging flames.

To walk through the world ablaze but unconsumed, passionate and striving but somehow also whole and calm, to know that we are neither free to desist from the work nor obligated to finish it, that is the balance we seek, that is what it means to understand one’s place in a world which God created as He saw fit.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gifts from our Parents: Some Thoughts on Parashat Vayehi

The two parshiyyot in the book of Breishit whose topic is death are both called by names that indicate life: Hayei Sarah, in which Sarah, Avraham and Ishmael die, and this week’s parsha, Vayehi, in which Yaakov dies. At the very moment that we acknowledge that these ancestors died, we also proclaim something about their lives, something eternal that still lives. Their death somehow also points to hayim, life.

This sense of “life” after “death” is particularly true of Yaakov, of whom Rashi, quoting the Talmud, says, Yaakov avinu lo met. “Our father Yaakov never died.” This assertion is based on the lack of the word vayamot, “And he died,” in the brief description of his death: “He drew his feet into the bed, and breathing his last, he was gathered to his people” (49:33).

What can it mean to say that Yaakov did not die? This parsha also includes the blessings that Yaakov gave his children on his death bed. The first of these, which he gives to Yosef’s children, has become a classic bed-time prayer, Hamalakh HaGoel Oti, “May the Angel who saved me from all trouble bless these lads and may they carry with them my name and the name of my ancestors, Avraham and Yitzhak, . . .” Yaakov continues to live because he has bequeathed to his children a legacy. He has passed on to them the legacy of divine protection and connection which he received from his parents and grandparents.

Yaakov made himself into a link in a chain, a chain that extends backwards to Avraham and forwards to his grandchildren and to their children and grandchildren, all the way down to us. Yaakov still lives in us. We, too, are links in the chain, and as such, we both draw life from Yaakov, and breathe life back into him. We are a part of one another, moving beyond death into a divine space of eternity.

But what if we struggle with this legacy? Can we truly be links if we struggle with God and with Torah, are often doubtful and uncertain, and engaged in battle? But that is precisely the nature of our legacy. It is Yaakov who lives on in us, the Yaakov who struggled on the ground, fighting with the angel, the Yaakov who made mistakes and suffered so greatly, and yet somehow felt that there was an Angel looking out for him. To struggle is be alive, and to struggle with tradition is to keep it alive. Yaakov lives on in us precisely in our struggles.

Vayehi Yaakov. As the Torah tells of his death, it tells also of Yaakov’s hayim, of his continuing life, of the gifts that he bequeathed to his children that lived on in them and helped them, too, be links in a never-ending chain. As I drive home from minyan after saying kaddish one morning, I am struck by an overwhelming sense of gratitude to my father for the gift of Torah. I look over at the Humash sitting next to me in the car and see, emblazoned on its front, the words, Torat Hayim, “Torah of Life.” Where there is Torah, there never really is death.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Parashat Vayigash: Reflections on Miracles

Where are the miracles in life?

I look into the light of the candles each night and wonder at the miracle of light itself, how it somehow seems to exist both in this physical world as well as in some other more ephemeral world. It is here to behold, yet it speaks to us of something also here, but not so easy for us to behold. Light seems to span the distance between heaven and earth, between this world and the next, between the living and the dead, the body and the spirit.

The Sefat Emet says there are two types of light, the divine sort that shines and gives light without consuming, and the human sort that burns and consumes and eventually runs out. The Hanukah light, he says, is powerful because it is a mix of the two. There was the small jug of oil that started the light --a human light that shone by consuming -- but out of that light also grew a divine light that didn’t require oil, that somehow shone without burning and lasted and lasted and lasted.

This is the miracle of Hanukah. As I glance around at my family, I feel that they, too, are part of this miracle. They, too, are a sort of light. I can feel them and hold them and see them, but they also exist in my heart, in some miraculous place of eternal presence that is not limited to physical presence. I carry in this place both those that are with us and those that are not; they live inside me like the little light that would not go out.

The parsha speaks of family reunions, of the coming together of the family of Yaakov, as Yosef is tearfully reunited first with his brothers and then with his father. Surely this is the biggest miracle of all, the ability to come together in love and forgiveness, to hold on to one another despite past grievances and irritations. Surely this attachment, this love, this connection between human beings is a kind of miracle, an eternal divine light that burns between us.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Parashat Vayeshev: Seeking Brotherhood

Et Ahai Anokhi Mevakesh. “It is my brothers that I am seeking,” says Yosef to the mysterious “man” who helps him along his way when he is sent out by his father to check on his brothers. This statement seems a deep truth about the Yosef story as a whole. The seeking of brotherhood drives the entire narrative.

The word ah, brother, and its various forms, ehav and ahinua and aheikha, appear 20 times in chapter 37. Something has shifted in the Torah’s narrative. Whereas in every previous generation, one son was in and one son was out, now for the first time, all will be chosen, and they need to learn to live together, as brothers. There can no longer be the amicable divorce of Yaakov and Esav. The book of Breishit ends with the reunion of all the children of Yaakov.

This is a difficult task, to learn to be brothers, to live together and love each other in spite of the uneven way life (and fathers) treat each of us, in spite of the resulting jealousies and the difficulties of various arrogant or violent personalities. Somehow, they and we, must come together.

Et Ahai Anokhi Mevakesh. I seek my brothers. I seek the peace that we pray for so many times in our services, the kind of peace that comes from a place beyond jealousy, beyond counting who gets one cookie and who gets 2, the kind of peace and love that sometimes, as here, unfortunately only comes after much harm and heartbreak and forgiveness. We are not there yet, either in the Torah’s narrative, or in our lives, but it is something to seek. Et Ahai Anokhi Mevakesh.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Kaddish Musings #2

Kaddish is not said alone. Not only are you in a congregation, with others responding to your words of heavenly praise, but, more often than not, other mourners are saying kaddish with you.

Sometimes that makes it hard. One says it at this speed, and another at that speed, and you are trying to listen and keep up and match your words with theirs, and the whole thing is an exercise in frustration. The chairs scrape against the floor, making it impossible to hear the other mourners’ kaddish, and you feel alone, out of sync.

Those are the difficult moments. But there are other times, times when a state of grace falls on us all. We say Yehe shlama raba, “May there be great peace,” and there is peace. We are miraculously in step with one another. There is a rhythm and a meaning to the words, and they rise up, on many wings instead of one.

That is kedushah, holiness. Devarim shebekedushah, “things of holiness,” like the Kaddish and the kedushah, can only be said in a minyan for this reason – kedushah is a state achieved together. We read about how the angels do it in the first brachah before the Shma – they call out to one another, facing each other, calling zeh el zeh, “this one to that one.” They sanctify God through their communal activity, through their ability to come together in His praise and do it as a team.

We are not angels, and not automatons. We are blessed with individual differences, but we also can come together, can work as a team, and when we do, we bring the holiness of God down to earth. And that is kaddish.

Parashat Vayishlach: Yaakov's Prayer

Katonti Mikol HaHasadim Umekol Haemet Asher Asita et Avdekha. “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant.” This is the beginning of Yaakov’s prayer before he meets Esav this week. Katonti. I am katan, small. I have been given so much, and I am so small. All this abundance is not my own doing, but a gift from above.

How does this acknowledgment help Yaakov to face the difficult situation before him, meeting up with a brother who has in the past desired to kill him and who now approaches with “400 men”?

Gratitude – a deep awareness of the gifts one has been granted – helps one face many situations. With gratitude comes a sense of dependence on someone other than oneself, and also a sense of trust. All this I have been given; I trust that all will continue to work out well for me. Katonti, Yaakov says. I am small. I didn’t do it myself, and I won’t be able to face the next situation myself. I simply trust.

Gratitude also promotes a feeling of generosity. I have so much, I am so overflowing, that I will pass it on, let it overflow into the world and to others. And so it is that Yaakov, immediately following this prayer, sends out gifts to Esav. Yes, they are appeasement gifts, but they also represent his new attitude toward his possessions and toward others. Whereas in the past, he wouldn’t even give his hungry brother a bowl of soup without getting something in return, now he freely offers multiple gifts. Feeling his own smallness and great good fortune, his gifts overflow from him toward his brother.

Perhaps Esav felt this shift in his brother and responded in kind. We don’t know what his intentions originally were with those 400 men. Perhaps he was at first still bent on anger, but was softened by Yaakov’s display of generosity, and the change it implied, that Yaakov was no longer a wretched heel grabber, but had enough of a sense of blessedness to give blessings to others. Gratitude leads to generosity which leads to forgiveness and peace.

There is always something to complain about. Yaakov could have begun his prayer with complaint – he suffered so at the hands of Lavan, being tricked out of a wife and his wages and then being chased down by him, and now facing a brother who wants to kill him. He could have seen himself as deserving of better treatment. He could have said to God – I’m a pretty good guy – I’m big, not small – why do you do all this to me? But instead what he felt was gratitude for the gifts he had been given and a sense of humility. Katonti. And out of this feeling of smallness and an acute awareness of God’s grace and kindness, he gathers the strength to face his brother.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Parashat Vayetze: God in the Hard Spots

“Behold God is in this place, and I was not aware.” These were Yaakov’s words after his ladder dream encounter with God. It is a statement of spiritual awakening, of a new sense of divine presence around him. Where is “this place”, hamakom hazeh, and how can we, too, get to it?

The classical interpreters read “this place” as referring to Mount Moriah, on which Isaac was bound, and which will be the future site of the Temple. But I wonder whether we can’t read “this place” as referring to a spiritual/emotional place, the particular head-space that Yaakov was in that night.

And what “place” was that? A lonely, fearful, anxious place. Yaakov was running away from a brother who wanted to kill him, alone and friendless, moving out of the security of his parental home onto an unknown path. Vayetze – He had left his home, but he had not yet arrived in a new home, a new life. He was in a moment of transition, and moments of transition are frought with hardship. Like the hard rocks that Yaakov placed beneath his head that night to sleep on, Yaakov’s head was in a hard place.

What Yaakov learned and what we learn from this experience is that “Behold, God is in this place” – God exists, is accessible, precisely in such hard spots. Rocky times are, as Yaakov says, a Sha’ar HaShamayim, a gate to heaven.

The Piaseczner Rebbe says that every moment of sadness, of anxiety or worry, even the slightest sigh – these are cracks in the soul, openings that allow us access to the deep water within ourselves that connects us up above. Normally these holes are closed over, but when we are in a state of emotional turmoil, there is an opening, a sha’ar, a gate to heaven.

We don’t normally think this way. As Yaakov says, “Behold God is in this place, and I was not aware.” We are not aware that God is there. When we suffer, we try to escape, to cover over our feelings with work or food or other distractions. But the Piasezcner Rebbe says they are an opportunity, an opportunity to become closer to God. Step away from life for a moment and talk to God about what is bothering you. These are moments of great access. They are, as Yaakov experienced, a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Parashat Toldot and Praying for Others

The Talmud says that if you pray for someone else who has the same problem as you, your own needs too will be answered. So if you need a job and so does your friend Reuven, you should pray that Reuven will find one. Same holds if you need a spouse or success or contentment and so does someone else you know. Pray for them. The art of prayer is bound up in reaching out toward others.

The Slonimer Rebbe, author of the Netivot Shalom, writes that to pray just for your own needs is to act like a dog, barking for food. He cites a famous rabbi who used to say the phrase, VeAhavta Le’Re’akha Kamokha, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” just before beginning the Amidah prayer, in order to get into the proper prayer mindset. Prayer is a stepping out of oneself, a stepping out toward God, but also a stepping out of oneself toward others.

This week’s parsha begins with such a prayer for another. “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.” That’s it? It was that simple? Avraham and Sarah went through a long drawn out process, including the conception of a child through another woman, Hagar. What’s the difference here? Avraham never prayed for Sarah. He wanted a child, and by all accounts, Ishmael was good enough for him. Yitzhak, though, Yitzhak’s primary motive in praying was to pray for his wife -- Lenokhan Ishto¸ translated by JPs as “on behalf of his wife,” literally, “in the presence of his wife.” Rivkah was present for Yitzhak; she was on his mind, and his prayer was for her. Not just for a child, but for this wife to have a child.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the communal nature of prayer lately as I attend communal services more regularly in order to say kaddish. Hearing the words of prayer uttered by others around me, I wonder to myself: What is that one worried about? What is that one praying for today? I find this mental act to be a tremendous relief from my own worries and anxieties. For a moment I can step out of myself. And then, when the kaddish rolls around, my own private mourning becomes a communal mourning, my own sorrow is bound up with all the sorrows experienced by each person in the room. Suddenly the world seems to be filled with people who have lost a loved one, and all of their grief is somehow part of mine, and mine part of theirs.

Yitzhak’s reward for praying for another was not just that his prayer was answered. It was also great intimacy with God. The Torah uses the same root for his prayer and for God’s response,atar, and the midrash explains that Yitzhak was digging a tunnel on one side, and God was digging one on the other side to meet him. Stepping out toward others is at the same time stepping out toward God and feeling how God is stepping out toward us.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kaddish Musings

Kaddish feels like a flight upward. The words have wings, lifting us with their soft repetitive mesmerizing sound, yitgadal vitkadash. Yitpa’ar vitromam vitnase. May He be exalted and lifted up and raised up. Le’eyla min kol birkhata . . . Higher than all blessings and praises, . . . Higher and higher we go. Each word is a step in our trip upwards.

Like the soul that we are praying for, helping to make its journey upward, we, too, take a little flight each time. We, as mourners of the dead, have some special connection to this journey upward of the soul.

And once we are up there, we bring down for those around us gifts from that space – the gift of shalom or shlama, peace, and somewhat ironically, the gift of hayim, life, the gift of knowing that life – more precious now that we see how easily it can disappear -- comes from above, from this place we have flown to, this space between worlds.

No wonder kaddish is a prayer that happens at the interstices of our formal prayers. It is a prayer said by those, the living mourning for the dead, who inhabit a place between worlds.

And, as if to keep us firmly rooted in this world, like ropes attached to a rock climber, we have the solid grounding of our fellow inhabitants of this earthly world constantly saying “amen” and “brikh hu,” anchoring us as we make our climb. This is a temporary journey of the mind, but we are still here, among the living, bringing down blessings from above aleynu ve’al kol yisrael, vimru amen.

Parashat Chaye Sarah: On Death and Hesed

Our parsha, Chaye Sarah, is enveloped by death. At its start is death, that of Sarah, and its conclusion is death, that of Avraham and of Ishmael. In life, we are surrounded by death. We will all die and we live our lives through the prism of that knowledge. We were not alive before our births, and we will cease to exist afterwards. The question is: What is left of significance in the middle, given this framing?

And the answer, according to this week’s parsha, is hesed, loving-kindness. This is the spark of eternity which grows out of this frame of death. Rebecca is chosen as Isaac’s wife because of her acts of hesed, of generosity and compassion and love for a stranger as she draws water for Avraham’s servant and for his camels. She is a giver, attentive to the needs of those around her. Giving generously, it turns out, is the abiding legacy of Avraham, our first patriarch, the one who ran after guests and fed them his finest meat. Generosity and kindness are what remains, what needs to be preserved in the shadow of death that threatens to engulf us.

Which makes sense, in a way. If you only live for yourself, and then you die, then you are truly gone when you are gone. But if you have somehow gotten beyond the confines of self through the care of others, then you are not bound by time or physical container, but have, like Avraham and Sarah, become part of something eternal.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Parashat Vayera and Presence: Human and Divine

This post is dedicated to the memory of my father, Moshe Shmuel ben Shimon Tuvia, may his memory be a blessing, and to the many people who have been helping us through this time.

What does it mean “to walk in God’s ways,” to be like God, to act like a true tzelem elokim, “image of God” on earth? It means to be present to those who suffer as God Himself is present.

God appears to Avraham, in the beginning of this week’s parsha, just a few days after the painful procedure of his brit milah, circumcision. Rashi brings down the rabbinic tradition that God’s purpose in this visit was bikur holim, visiting the sick.

Similarly, in next week’s parsha, right after Avraham’s death, the Torah says that “God blessed Yitzhak his son (Gen 25:11).” Here, too, Rashi brings the rabbinic tradition that God was performing the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourners.

God is our model. Neither of these acts involves fixing anything. Both visiting the sick and comforting the mourners are mitzvot of presence; one simply comes to be with a person in his trouble so that he knows that he is not alone. We say in the daily tefillah (prayers) that God is rofe leshevurei lev, that He heals the broken-hearted. We, too, provide healing, simply by our ability to be present.

Avraham learned this ability to be present from God and reflected it back to God and to others (notably, his son) in the simple phrase: Hineni, Here I am. That’s all we need to say sometimes: I am here, here with you, present and open to who you are, to what you have to say and to what you are experiencing.

This past week, we were sitting shiva for my father, and we felt the power of such presence in all those many who came to be with us. It’s funny that people recite the phrase, Hamakom yenahem etkhem, that the Holy One should console us, when it is their very human visit, their presence in our sorrow, that offers us some comfort.

Maybe that’s what it means. We are God’s instruments on earth. We help each other to feel God’s presence in our sorrow, by being present ourselves. During shivah, someone mentioned that a youngster she was teaching, when asked to draw a picture of God and himself, drew a big hand with a circle in the middle for God. Where are you, she asked him? I am the hand, God’s hand in the world.

We have lost one hand in this world. When I spoke at my father’s funeral, one of the things I spoke about was his special ability to be present to those he was with. He had deep eyes and a soul that understood and connected. I have since been hearing from others – cousins and friends and students – who felt similarly that when they were with him, he really listened and cared, was totally focused on them. May we continue his work in this world; may we be the tools of Presence for those around us.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Parashat Noah and the Shma: On Love and Unity

The people spoke one language and were like “one nation.” And that was trouble, somehow. That is the story of the Tower of Bavel, in the end of this week’s parsha, parashat Noah. What is wrong with unity?

Every day we say in the Shma that God is One. We affirm our faith in the ultimate unity of the divine and of all of creation. We are part of God’s One-ness in some way, and it often seems that the goal of religious practice is to dissolve the boundaries between self and other and between self and Other. So what was wrong with the Tower of Bavel?

The kind of unity they were engaged in was a unity of sameness. The kind that we strive for is a unity built out of love. Love does not require sameness. Indeed, it thrives out of difference, as the popular saying, “Opposites attract” indicates. Love celebrates difference, particularity; when we love someone, what we love is all those crazy (and sometimes even annoying) little quirks that make them unique. Love is the bridge across difference.

God didn’t want a world of automatons working together because they naturally had no differences, naturally agreed with each other. He wanted a world where people learned to work together and connect with each other across difference. And the most essential tool for that purpose is love.

That’s why Avraham, the star of next week’s parsha, is known for the attribute of hesed, loving-kindness. Olam Hesed Yibaneh. The world will be built out of hesed, out of loving-kindness, not out of the the bricks of a Tower built by sameness.

The Shma, too, makes this point clear. Before and after we say that God is one, that our goal is to feel the unity that exists in this universe, we speak of ahavaha, love. Before the Shma, we speak of God’s love for us in the paragraph beginning Ahavah Rabbah, “a great love have You loved us,” and afterwards, we speak of our love for God, ve’ahavta, “You should love God with all your might, . . .” The unity of the Shma is built out of a love that helps us bridge the enormous chasm between ourselves and heaven.

We are not the same, and the goal never was for us to be the same. Looking out the window this time of year, the leaves seem to speak the same truth. God’s unity is manifest in a thousand colors and our ability to step out of ourselves to love each one.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

For Sukkot

We have worked to bring down the walls. Now we can step out of doors and try to live in that space we have created.

It is not a space completely open to the elements. We do not venture out of our walls alone. What we have worked to create around us is a sense of Presence that we can carry with us wherever we go. This is the sukkah, a symbol of the mobile divine presence that accompanied the Israelites through their journeys. That is what we have worked and are working to create for ourselves through these Holy Days, a feeling that we, too, can carry God with us through the year, wherever we go and whatever happens to us.

We have vowed not to live indoors, behind walls that guard our egos, walls built of fear, anxiety and smallness of mind. The season of the shofar has helped us to begin to bring down those walls. The question now is one of living, dwelling, the question of the sukkot holiday. How does one live without such walls, open to the world, to the experience of life as it is? And the answer is the sukkah itself – we do not venture out alone, but with God’s Presence surrounding us and embracing us. This is a dwelling place that embraces, that keeps us company, without shutting out the stars. May we experience the joy of living with such Presence.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

For Yom Kippur

1. Getting Down to the Bare Truth:

The truth is always simple. If we could get rid of all the distractions and all the layers of obstacles – fear, ego, anxiety, physical distractions – that stand in our way, we could perceive the truth, inside us and around us.

The shofar blasts on Rosh HaShanah are like the blasts before Jericho; they can knock down walls for us, helping us shed whatever stands in our way.

On Yom Kippur the High Priest sheds his fancy gold garments and wears a simple white. We want to get to the bottom of things, to a kind of pure truth that lies normally hidden by the sparkles we put on ourselves for the world.

The Piaseczner Rebbe says that one of the principle ways to perceive God in the world is to cultivate in yourself a certain teminut, simplicity or honesty. When you ask a child a question, he says, the answer comes back to you straight from her heart. That is the charm of the child. We, on the other hand, have layers of thought and convolution before words come out of our mouths – if I say this, they’ll think I’m smart; if I say that, they’ll think I’m generous, . . . In the end what comes out is a bag of wind. The truth lies hidden beneath layers of social convention.

Truth is God’s sign, implanted in us as it is in every creation in the world. Our access to our Source is through this point of truth buried inside us.

It is not just in our interactions with others that we are often not totally present, not totally honest. It is also in our interactions with God. As Isaiah says in our Yom Kippur haftarah, “They pretend to seek Me every day, and they pretend to desire knowledge of My ways.” All these words of prayer we say – do they have wings to fly? What are they made of -- while we mouth words of piety and thanksgiving, are we thinking about what to make for dinner? What value do such words have – if they don’t come from our Truth, they will lie on the ground, dead and useless.

On Yom Kippur, we have a chance to taste the Truth. Tradition says that the gates of heaven are more open, that God is more accessible during this season, and especially on this day, as we, for our part are brutally honest about our own lives and shortcomings. May the spark of Truth we feel on this day carry us into a new year of temimut.

2.God is our mikvah:

Mikveh Yisrael Hashem (Jeremiah 17:13) literally means, “O Hope of Israel! O Lord!” but the rabbis playfully read it as “God is the mikvah, the ritual bath, of Israel” -- He purifies us just as a mikvah would.

I love this image of God as our mikvah. When one immerses in a mikvah, one is completely submerged in the water. Imagining God as our mikvah means feeling this sense of intense connection to God, feeling that He is all around us, that we are surrounded, embraced, cocooned by His presence. As we say in the daily amidah, God is our magen, our shield. It is as if we have a force-field around us of divine energy. The question is whether we can feel its presence, notice the face of God in everything around us.

3. Framing:

Do we really believe that God changes our decrees based on our repentance during this season?

We say: UTeshuvah utefillah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah: “Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree.” Many years ago, I heard from Catriella Freedman the following interpretation of this phrase in the name of Rabbi Sam Shor:

Notice that we don’t say that the decree itself will be nullified. The decree, it seems, whatever it is, remains intact. What changes is its “evil” nature. How can we remove its “evil”? Perceiving something that happens to you as essentially evil is a state of mind, a matter of framing. We have the capacity to remove our sense of this event as evil through repentance, prayer and charity. These are the tools we are given -- not to change what happens to us in the world – we don’t have control over that – but to change how we react to and perceive what happens to us. Prayer, repentance and charity are practices that help a person learn to have the kind of state of mind that can see opportunity in difficulty, find comfort in tragedy. They are practices of introspection and generosity and they can shape our habits of mind so that we no longer feel the “evil” nature of the decree.

Some Post-Rosh HaShanah Thoughts

1. On Bowing to the Ground:

Bowing all the way down with my head to the ground on Rosh HaShanah this year, I suddenly felt the intense vulnerability of this position. I can’t see what is coming this way and I am not physically prepared to react, prostrate. I relinquish myself; I submit myself entirely to God’s mercy. I have to trust that things will work out, not because I can see them and control them, because I can’t. And that is the truth.

Avinu Malkeinu Haneinu ve’Aneinu ki eyn banu ma’asim. Aseh imanu tzedakah va’hesed vehoshienu. “Our father, our king, have mercy and answer us, for we have no deeds.” We are nothing. In the end, what can we say for ourselves? We’ve tried? We’ve struggled? There is so much undone, so much imperfection. In the end of the day, we have no deeds, no words. And that is a great relief. To simply give oneself up to God’s mercies. Aseh imanu. . . vehoshieinu. “Deal with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.” Save us. After Rosh haShanah and after Yom Kippur, what will come out of it all – hoshanot, petitions for deliverance. What will come of all this is our realization that it is not reall in our hands, that we are very much in need of deliverance, daily, yearly, each minute. We submit, we let go, we trust.

Is this teshuvah, “repentance”? Doesn’t it require us to act to improve ourselves, to do better in the world? Yes, yes, but sometimes I think that at the base of most problems is a misperception about our relationship to this world, that maybe the best way to improve oneself is to really understand, in the deepest way possible, that one is not in control, to be able to truly submit oneself to God. Maybe this is what teshuvah means – a return to God, a return to an understanding that God is one’s Source, a total submission of the self. Once we realign ourselves, everything else falls into place.

2. On the Shofar Blasts:

This year, the shofar blasts reminded me of the shofar blasts outside the Jericho walls, loud and powerful, able to knock down obstacles. We put up all kinds of barriers around ourselves, protections built of fear and of ego. Can the shofar blasts help us learn to knock them down, to open up to what is out there without fear or hesitation, to knock down the illusion of individual separateness and let us feel a part of the universe, like a wave in the ocean, a blade of grass in the lawn, a note of sound carried on a wave of such sounds by the shofar?

Toot, toot, toot. The brokenness of the shevarim and the cries of the teruah are always surrounded by the oneness and unity of the tekiah. The tekiah gedolah gathers up those separate sounds and surrounds them, melting them into a single unit, along with our separate selves.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Few Rosh HaShanah Thoughts

1) An addendum to last week’s blog post on being present for each other’s suffering: This theme is also expressed in the blowing of the shofar, traditionally thought to resemble a cry. The Sefat Emet points out that the main mitzvah is actually to hear the shofar, not to blow it. This is a day to learn to hear those who are crying around us, to be present for their suffering, as God is.

2) Melekh: King. On Rosh HaShanah we pray for a time when the whole world will recognize God as king. Why is this important to us? Probably for many reasons, but this year, one strikes me – we say ki taa’avir memshelet zadon min ha’aretz – when You will remove the rule of evil from the land. Having God as king would mean the rule of justice and good and peace, and the end of cruelty, tyranny, torture and injustice. This is also the thrust of our daily prayer for justice: Hashiva Shofteinu¸ “Restore our judges . . . May You, alone, Lord, reign over us with loving kindness and compassion.” Every human justice system and every human system of rule is fundamentally flawed and has certain points of injustice. Yearning for the kingship of God over the world is a way of acknowledging this and yearning for complete justice.

3) Taher libeinu le’avdekha be’emet: Purify our hearts so that we may worship you “in truth,” sincerely, earnestly, honestly. I love this statement because it acknowledges that we need God’s help even in the endeavor of coming close to Him. Also, the end of the sentence clarifies the point: ki atah Elokim emet. For You are a God of Truth. We need to learn to worship God honestly, from that simple, pure place in our heart, because God Himself is made of truth. The Piasezcner Rebbe talks about acting with temimut, simplicity and honesty, as essential to seeking God because God’s seal is Truth. There is no point in trying to hide. And the only way to feel connected to God is to reconnect to the most honest, simple pure part inside of oneself. May we have the help to do this.

4) This one is for my brother-in-law, Eric: The Sefat Emet understands the name Rosh HaShanah as meaing “before the change.” Shanah, meaning year, comes from a root meaning either repeat or change – lihishtanot. The Sefat Emet explains that on Rosh HaShanah, as we celebrate the birthday of the world, we return to a time “before change,” before everything in the world broke up into separate pieces, before separateness, a time when everything was still unified and part of God. On Rosh HaShanah we get a chance to return to this simple and perfect sense of connection and unity with the divine.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Parashat Nitzavim and Rosh HaShanah: Suffering Together

Some weeks all roads point to the same truth.

Last night, my 6-year old niece Ruby, who was visiting our family on her own, was having trouble falling asleep because she was homesick. In the end, what worked was simply to lie next to her as she was crying, being with her in her sadness.

A friend of mine who is going through a period of illness told me this week that she tries to repeat to herself the phrase Imo Anokhi Be’Tzarah. “I am with him in distress,” a phrase referring to God’s ability to reside with the nation of Israel (or with an individual) in its period of suffering. The phrase gives her the comforting knowledge that God is with her in whatever she, too, suffers.

In this week’s parsha, Rashi makes a simllar comment. After asserting that God will disperse the people of Israel for their sins, the Torah goes on to describe how the people will repent and then God will bring them back to the land of Israel. Strangely, as Rashi points out, the word used to refer to God’s return of the people is veshav, meaning, “He will return,” not “He will bring back,” which would have been veheshiv. This strange locution, suggests Rashi (citing the classical rabbis) is designed to tell us that God Himself was in exile together with the people, with them in their distress, so that when the Torah reports their return, it also reports the return of God Himself, having suffered alongside the people.

God’s presence in our suffering is a frequent theme in Esh Kodesh, the work of the Piaseczner Rebbe from the Warsaw ghetto. In 1942 he was able to write: “This is the difference. The pain and grief that a person suffers over his own situation, alone, in isolation, can break him. He may even fall so far that he becomes immobilized by it. But the crying that a person does together with God makes him strong. He cries and takes strength.”

As we approach Rosh HaShanah this seems an important message – the message of Presence, God’s presence in our lives and our own ability to provide such presence for those around us, to know how to simply be with those who are suffering. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we come together to pray about the year that has past and the year that is to come, and each person brings with him his own burdens and sorrows. We come together, reviewing our lives with angst and intensity, to learn to feel God’s presence in our struggles and to learn to be so present for one another. I remember as a child in Cong Shomrei Emunah, sitting next to my mother all day in the back of the synagogue and feeling the weight of the sorrows of all those praying in the room. The room felt heavy with sighs and weeping and they entered into me. We don’t try to solve each others’ problems on these days; we pray together, and in so doing, learn to be present for one another as God Himself is. May we all be inscribed for a year of health, contentment and compassionate Presence and presence.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ahat Sha'alti: I Ask For Only One Thing

Ahat -One. Ahat sha’alti me’et Hashem. “One thing have I asked of the Lord, it I will request: to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life. To see the beauty of the Lord and to visit in His palace (Ps 27).” These are the words of a song I grew up singing, one which involves, in the second half, throwing up a kippah to the accompaniment of the word “Woow!”

The phrase is also part of the special psalm said daily from the beginning of the month of Elul through the end of the holiday season. This year, I am taken by that first word, Ahat, “One.” It reminds me of the other “one” I have been struggling with, the ehad, (masculine form) of the Shma – God is One. And also of the ahat of the Piaseczner Rebbe who talks about holding inside one’s head “a single holy thought,” machshavah ahat tehorah.

Wouldn’t it be nice to only have one single thought, to really only desire ahat – “one thing have I asked of the Lord?” One of the hardest things about the modern world is the stress caused by competing obligations and pulls for our attention and time. How will I ever get it all done, one wonders, as the mind rushes from one thing to another in a whirr of tension that clouds the mind and weighs heavily on the body.

This is the time of year we get to think ahat, one thought about Ehad, the One. Can we align our complicated lives with this one single important principle: seeking out God’s presence in the world. If God is one, the world He created is somehow one, and eyn od milvado, “There is nothing other than Him,” so that every single part of our lives is integral to His Presence.

Perhaps I sound like a fundamentalist. I don’t pretend to actually see the world in this single-minded way. But I wonder if it doesn’t make sense to try to bring wholeness to all these disparate parts, to feel when we wake up in the morning a sense of purpose and clarity of vision, a drive to be aligned with the One in everything we do? I suspect that in this ahat there is great peace and strength, that being aligned with the One means receiving the blessing – Vayasem Lekha Shalom.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Emet VeYatziv: True and Stable are We

Emet VeYatziv: “True and Stable.” So begins the paragraph immediately following the Shma. I take this as my mantra in moments of uncertainty and shakiness. Emet VeYatziv. There is a truth in the world that is stable and secure, that has always existed and will always exist. The world swirls around me with all its confusion, but there is something strong and secure to hold on to. Even though there is evil and there is falsehood and fakeness and pretension in the world, Truth undergirds it all. “Truth” is God’s stamp, stamped on to and into every piece of creation. We may stray, but we are true underneath. And we are therefore also yatziv, “stable.” When I say the word yatziv, I imagine a mountain and I feel like a mountain. There is nothing that can push me down if I connect myself to this eternal, stable Truth inside me.

On Summer Crickets and the Angels' Song

Tonight I stopped to listen to the crickets. They are loud! It makes me feel like the Piaseczner Rebbe is right – the whole world is singing a song to God, and it is only us that are not part of it. Hearing them, noticing their song, it sets off inside an urge to become a part of it, to join in their song. Maybe that’s why we talk about the angels’ song in the first brachah of the Shma, to remind us that there are songs already going on; the question is only whether we will join in the singing.

What’s amazing about those crickets is how we don’t hear them most of the time. What else don’t we hear or see? We are so busy, and some things can only be perceived with time. Like at the frog pond in Five Rivers, you can’t see the tiny frogs among the lilies unless you stand there staring for a while. Then you eyes begin to perceive things they couldn’t see before. Or in the swamp, at first you think there is nothing there, but gradually, the longer you stay, the more you realize the place is teeming with life. What else are we missing by not standing still?

On the Connection Between Geulah and Tefillah: Overflowing with Song

[**"Geulah" refers to the brachah of redemption, the last brachah after the Shma, just before "Tefillah" which refers to the Amidah, the silent standing prayer**]

On the cusp of saying the Amidah, the pinnacle of our prayer service, we remind ourselves of the Israelites at the Sea, how they sang out their new song together in joy. The rabbis say it is essential to keep these two pieces tightly linked, not to speak or make any kind of break between them --you should remember the redemption at the Sea and then go right into your personal prayer. As I think of this each morning, I pray for my mind and my heart and my mouth to be opened up like the Sea and to pour forth a new Song like its water’s waves. We are so closed up and covered over. We don’t see what the angels see in the first brachah of the Shma – for them it is clear that the world is full of God’s glory. But we are too weighed down by our harried lives to feel this. Once, at the Sea, long ago, human beings did see what angels see clearly, and they, too, sang out in joy. As we stand, getting ready to speak to God each day, we pray to be opened again to such sight, to such awakening, to such fullness of presence, so that our lips, too, may overflow with song. Ilu finu male shirah kayam. If only our mouths were full of song like the sea.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On the Month of Elul

Today is the first day of Elul. There is a tradition that sees Elul as an acronym for the words: Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi li – “I am My Beloved’s (God’s) and My Beloved is mine.” This year the phrase speaks to me of belonging. I am not just a floating atom in the universe. I have roots and attachments. Even if my human roots and attachments shift around, I will always belong because I belong to God. There is a thread in me that connects directly to my Source and it is a thread woven of love. I will always have a place. I am surrounded, embraced by Presence.

On Tefillah (Prayer) and Spaciousness

Sometimes I wake up engrossed in minute thoughts and plans for the new day, all wrapped up in the tasks and concerns that surround me. What tefillah (prayer) does is to expand my world, to make me conscious of the vast universe, of the earth and the sky and the sun that God has created afresh today and of God Himself in all His incomprehensible vastness and then, before Shma, of the angels and their proclamations of God’s glory (look what they occupy themselves with compared to what I am worried about!). Meditation practices talk about breathing space into one’s worries, letting them be, but opening up the space around them so that they seem somehow smaller, less of a big deal. That’s what tefillah does for me. It breathes space into my brain, into my heart. The problem with our problems is that they loom too large. Taken as simply a problem in the world, it’s all manageable, but somehow our concerns seem to take over so that one feels preouccupied and unable to truly think or focus or enjoy anything else until that problem is resolved. Tefillah is a prism that helps enlarge and shift the focus beyond the confines of the self.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tefillah Thoughts 1

1. Ashrei Yoshvei Veitekha: Happy are those who dwell in Your home, O God. I used to think this referred to the Temple or the Tabernacle or, in today’s world, to the synagogue. But today, looking out at the sun and the trees and the green sky, it occurred to me that it might also mean the world. Happy, fortunate are we who live in God’s home, this world. Happy, fortunate are we if we can appreciate that good fortune, if we can cherish the beauty, see the divinity in the world around us. There is holiness not just in the four walls of a prayer house, but in every step we take outside it. Ashrei Yoshvei Veitekha.

2. Karov Hashem Lekhol Korav, lekhol Asher Yikra’uhu Be’Emet: “God is close to all who call Him, to all those who call to Him in earnest.” It begins with us. As the Sefat Emet is always pointing out, you get what you put in. God is close to those who make the effort to call to Him. How to experience, to feel God’s presence? Call to Him and call to Him in earnest, with a full heart.

This morning I had a broken heart. It felt open and wounded. Nothing calamitous had occurred, but for some reason, after dropping my kids off at the day camp bus stop, I drove home with an emptiness and a loneliness and a sense of loss and endings. My children are leaving me. That is the way of the world. People leave each other. Some of our closest friends in Albany are moving out of town. There is a feeling of loss and grief.

I took the Piasetzner Rebbe’s advice this morning and decided to view such a feeling as “an opening of the soul,” an opportunity to cry out to God. Karov Hashem lekhol Korav. God is close to those who call Him, to those who call to Him be’emet -- in earnest. Usually it is hard to call in earnest; we are closed over to our soul and our feelings, a thousand practical concerns whirring through our minds. So, every once in a while, when the opportunity arises, and you are feeling strongly anyway – happy, sad, angry, irritated – seize the opportunity. That’s the Piasetzner Rebbe’s advice. Trying it this morning, alongside that feeling of loneliness and loss I also felt a sense of Presence.

3. Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Ehad: Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One. I have been struggling with the particularlity of Israel and confused about my connection to both the people of Israel and to all of humanity. I wonder if that’s what it means to say “Hashem Elokeinu” – this God of ours, ours in particular, is also “Hashem Ehad,” the God of Unity, of All, the God who helps us see the unity of the universe and the connections. We begin with a personal feeling about Him, that He is ours, but somehow that needs to lead us next to a sense of wholeness and openness to everything, to the Unity of all.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Parashat Re'eh: Today

Hayom. Today. A mantra in this week’s parsha and throughout the book of Devarim. It is today that I am talking to you, commanding you these things. As Rashi interprets, you should feel as excited about the Torah as you would about a new declaration from the king that all run out to hear.

That is how we should greet each day. We say that God is mehadesh betuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh breishit, that He renews the work of creation each morning with sunlight. All of creation, the grass, the trees, the birds and us are new each day. With what wonder we would look at the world and ourselves if we really felt that. It’d be like having the eyes of a child.

The word hayom literally means “the day.” Today is “the day,“ the most important day. Today the world was created. Today I experience revelation. The Rebbe of Kubrin, when asked: What is the most important thing a person needs to do, answered: Whatever needs to be done right now is the most important thing to do.

This message may seem obvious and simple, but it is such a struggle. We do so much planning and so much delaying of gratification, that after a while, we stop seeing the present as important. The present is always in the service of some other more important time. When does that other more important time finally arrive? How can we be really present to the present?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Summer Musings on Parashat Ekev and the Philiosophy of "Whatevs"

I decided to try adopting my son Medad’s new favorite saying, “whatevs” (translation: “whatever”) as a way of life. I noticed he says it when things don’t go exactly as he had planned or hoped: “whatevs,” meaning, “It doeesn’t matter that much. I’m just going to let it slide. I’m not going to let it bother me.” Essentially: No big deal.

I could use some of this attitude. I frequently wake up in the middle of the night with a worry that in the clarity and optimism of the morning light seems not to really matter all that much, certainly not to be worthy of lost sleep. I’d be happier and healthier if I just said “whatevs” more often.

At the same time I’ve been holding in my head a Rashi that my father pointed out to me this year, the first Rashi of this week’s parsha. Ekev, says Rashi, means that “If you keep even the mitzvot that you would normally trample on with your heels (Hebrew: ekev), then God will take care of you. “ The point is to be careful with a mitzvah kalah, a seemingly trivial mitzvah, just as you are careful with a mitzvah hamurah, a more serious one (to put in Pirkei Avot terms) – in other words, to take what seems to be exactly the opposite attitude of “whatevs” ; here everything matters, even the small stuff.

This careful, sincere attitude seems equally compelling – as my father pointed out to me, often it is indeed the small gestures in a relationship that make an impact, the daily acts of care, and in relation to God, the daily acts of devotion. Judaism, with all its intricacies, is based on this idea – you have to be careful how you act, not take things too lightly.

Both these ideas seem compelling to me; they both seem to hold a piece of the truth; and I’ve been trying to work out how to reconcile them. Here are some attempts (I’m open to others – please comment):

Maybe they each occupy a different realm. In relation to yourself, when things happen to you that you are unhappy or uncomfortable with for some reason, that is the time to say, at least most of the time – “whatevs.” It’s the ego that’s getting in the way here, so letting it slide is a good habit; it’ll gradually help us get out of our tiny individual shells and see the larger picture. On the other hand, in relation to others – people, animals, the earth, God – “whatevs” is a form of laziness and disloyalty, a lack of caring. You should never expect someone else to say “whatevs” in relation to something you do to them or fail to do; you can only do that for yourself; for others, you have to take the more careful, activist approach.

Or maybe the two ideas exist side by side in us and are meant to form some healthy tension. It may not always be easy to tell which side of the balance is called for. It is the old question of knowing which things in life can be changed and which cannot – some we need to dive into with all our attention to every detail, and others we need to simply accept with a shrug: “whatevs.” And maybe some situations and especially relationships require us to somehow maintain a posture of both at the very same moment – deep engagement with a light carefree laugh. It matters both a great deal and very little in the scheme of things. Life is both unbearably light and incredibly weighty at the same time.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Post Tisha B'Av Reflections 2013

I’ve noticed that when I’m sick or when I’m fasting there is a certain calm clarity that comes over me. My energy level is very low and I expend it only sparingly. It is suddenly clear to me what matters and what doesn’t. The emails can wait. It is right to just sit with my children and watch them eat. Only simple things are really necessary in life. I walk slowly and notice the flowers. It is like the world has suddenly become slow motion. I pray to take this perspective with me into my normal energetic detail-filled life.

Why fast and mourn on Tisha B’av? Why have Tisha B’av at all? Why not just focus on the light, on the joyous side of life – the Purims and the Hanukkahs? Because this, too, this deep sadness that is a part of our history, this heritage of suffering and pain, this, too is a part of God’s world. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Shma statement, and how we say all the time (twice a day) that God is one. What does it mean to be one? It’s all His. You can’t only want the good moods and the laughs. You have to somehow learn to embrace the crying. Not just to survive it. My oldest son Medad fasted the whole day for the first time this year, and that last hour, he said something about how he just wanted it to go fast, to get through it. I understood, but at the same time, I wondered – Shouldn’t we somehow embrace this, too? There is no hour in our lives that is not a part of God’s history, our precious gift. In one of the Tisha B’av kinot, lamentations, alternating lines end with Betzeti Mimitzrayim and Betzeti Miyerushalayim, “When I left Egypt,” and “When I left Jerusalem.” The one was a joyous leaving, the other a sad one, and the poet juxtaposes them to show the contrast, but at the same time, one gets a sense of the similarity, even in the way the two phrases sound. Tisha B’av comes to remind us to embrace all of our history and all of our lives, the ups, the downs, the joys and the irritations. Somehow they are all one.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Parashat Balak: Not Turning Away from the Negative

We break the world up into good and evil. But I think one of the points of monotheism is that it’s all from God, all interconnected in some way.

Maybe that’s the point of the enemy’s blessing of Israel in this week’s parsha, Parashat Balak. If we divide the world up into things worth pursuing and those not worth pursuing, then an enemy’s curse would definitely be among those to avoid. And yet, we end up using the words of this enemy’s curse turned blessing in our regular prayer service each morning – mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, “How good are the tents of Jacob.” There is energy and power in the negative, and if we can somehow tap into that energy and make it our own, then we have truly made the world one.

The lesson is about not writing anything off, either in ourselves or in others. Sometimes it is precisely that moment of pain, of anger or of illness which has the most to teach us, the most power to bless us. Everything is a tool in our work in this world.

I think that part of believing in one God involves believing that these painful aspects of life are also part of God’s world, and that they too have an energy and a power that is in need of redemption. We are called not to shut them out, but to use them -- as an opportunity for growth, as an opportunity to transform them and ourselves from a curse into a blessing. May we find the strength to do this work.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Parashat Hukat: Speech that Draws Water

God instructed Moshe to speak to the rock and it would bring forth water for the people. Instead, he hit the rock twice.

Maybe he did try speaking, but the speaking didn’t work. The Torah tells us that he gathered the people and, before hitting the rock, he spoke these words: Shimu na Hamorim, “Listen up, you rebels, are we going to get water from this rock?” This is speech. Perhaps this was the speech that Moshe thought would elicit water from the rock.

But it didn’t. It didn’t because only gentle loving speech brings forth water. Moshe’s speech is angry and dripping with sarcasm. He attacks the people at their very essence. He doesn’t just say, “You acted badly and rebelliously,” but you are rebels. These are words of despair and faithlessness in the possibility of change. They do not inspire, but degrade. They make the people feel badly about themselves. We will never be any good. We are, of our very essence, bad people.

Such words cannot bring forth water; they block it from flowing. There is water of life and creativity and spirit in every thing and every person in this world. God created them all through speech and speech is capable of bringing out their essence, their beauty, their power. But not such speech, not angry, hopeless speech.

What it takes is the speech of brachah, blessing. After God created the world with speech, He gave over the power of speech to humans, the power to praise God and recognize the beauty of His world through speech and the power to bless other human beings. This is the speech of song and the speech of love. It is the speech of Yaakov on his death bed who says, “May the angel who rescued me bless these children” and it is the speech song of the people of Israel at the Sea: “Who is like You, O Lord?”

Such speech does have the power to bring forth water. (Indeed, see a bit later in the parsha, where the people sing another water song, connected to a new water well they have dug – 21:17). In its joy and its love, such speech brings forth the hidden well-springs of water in each of us. Angry speech like Moshe’s does not accomplish its purpose and so necessarily leads to blows. The rock – and the people – will not bring forth water that way except by force. With a gentle loving speech that inspires, who knows what kind of water can come forth?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Parashat Korah: Korah is Not Yaakov

Katonti Mikol Hahasadim Umekol HaEmet Asher Asita et Avedekha. “ I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant (Gen 32:11).” This is what Ya’akov says in the beginning of his prayer before Esav’s approach. Before asking for help, he first acknowledges his overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for all that he, Yaakov, has already been given. Katonti, he says; I feel “small,” in comparison to the gifts bestowed upon me, gifts of life and family, health and prosperity. I feel small and unworthy.

No, we are not in Parashat Vayishlach. In fact, we are not in the book of Genesis at all right now. But it strikes me that this sentiment of Yaakov’s is the perfect foil for the sentiment expressed by Korah in this week’s parsha. Korah is a Levite, and as such has certain special priveleges and roles to perform in the community. But instead of feeling fortunate, he looks at his cousins Moshe and Aharon and their roles as leader and High Priest, and feels jealous. Rav Lakhem, he says. You, Moshe and Aharon, have too much. You have taken too much for yourselves. All the rest of us deserve more.

Korah can only see the bounty of others, not his own. (Indeed, Moshe responds with the same phrase turned back on Korah: Rav Lakhem Benei Levi: Your Levites also have a lot, too much). Korah’s problem is that he doesn’t have the feeling of gratitude, the sense of being overwhelmed by the gifts of life, that Yaakov had. Yaakov says: I don’t even deserve what I have already been given. Korah says: I deserve more.

We all have this Korah tendency. It’s like the way children look at the size of their siblings’ cookies and say: Hey, how come she got more?! (My own children would never do this; it’s just what I hear from other parents.) It comes from a basic misunderstanding of the way things are in this world, thinking that we’re all separate, that there are a finite number of gifts, and if one person gets more, the rest of us get less. That’s not so. In some deep way, the more one person gets, the more we all get. That’s part of the notion of monotheism: God is one, the world is one, everything and everyone is interconnected and of a piece.

Korah’s view of the world leads into the ground which opened its mouth to swallow him. Yaakov’s leads up to heaven on the ladder he saw in his dream. Korah’s desire to be large makes him disappear into nothingness. Yaakov’s understanding of his smallness gives him access to greatness.

Katonti mikal hahasadim. I am unworthy of all the kindnesses. We have all been given many gifts in life. We are a thousand times blessed. May we learn to see the world not through Korah’s eyes, but through Yaakov’s.

[Israeli singer/song-writer Yonatan Razel recently put beautiful music to this “Katonti” passage. Click here to hear it.]

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Parashat Shelakh: Humility vs. Insecurity

I’ve been thinking about humility. Last week’s parsha we heard that Moshe was the most humble person in the world. What about the 10 scouts, the meraglim, of this week’s parsha, who go out to see the land and come back with a report about the impossibility of conquest – are they humble? They say that they saw themselves as “grasshoppers” compared to the giants of the land. Doesn’t this make them humble? And they have a clear sense of their own limitations – a sense that there are certain things that they, in spite of their capacity as “heads” of the nation, will not be able to do, like conquer a land of giants. Doesn’t this make them humble?

What is the difference between Moshe’s humility and theirs? I once heard from my sister-in-law, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the idea that real humility is in relation to God, whereas insecurity is in relation to other people. The scouts see themselves as “grasshoppers” in relation to the giants; they feel small because they are comparing themselves to other very large people. We’ve all had this experience; we feel down on ourselves when we begin to compare ourselves to people out in the world doing truly great things. They make us feel as small as grasshoppers.

That’s not humility. That’s insecurity, an insult to our ego, an ego that is very much intact and that we feel compelled to defend. That kind of insecurity causes fear and a retreat from action, as it did in the scouts. We feel too small to accomplish anything.

Being insecure is actually the flip-side of being conceited. Both show an intense concern with the ego. The Zohar says that the scouts didn’t want to enter the land of Israel because they were worried that they would not retain their current status as “heads” of the tribes. They could not move forward because they were imprisoned by their ego needs.

Real humility is freeing and empowering. Confronted with the awesomeness of the universe and its Creator, aware of our own finitude and impermanence, we let go of the self and its protection, and allow ourselves to feel a part of something larger. There is no longer anyone to fear, no longer anyone to make us feel insecure, or anyone to feel greater than; compared to God, even the giants on earth are nothing; we will all one day be dust.

Moshe’s regular and extremely intimate contact with God must have given him just such a perspective; while the scouts were afraid of the giants of the land, Moshe was not afraid of the king of Egypt, also a giant of sorts.

For the (10) scouts, that feeling of “grasshopperness” actually stopped them from accomplishing their mission. They were blinded and imprisoned by the fear and insecurity created by their ego-focused perspective. Moshe, on the other hand, accomplished many things – leading the people out of Egypt and bringing them the Torah. True humility, a God’s eye view of one’s rightful place in the universe, helps a person take positive action in the world, not retreat from it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Parashat Beha'alotekha: Not Looking Back

The mind is a tricky place. The Israelites in their complaint for meat this week claim that in Egypt they ate fish “for free,” as well as cucumbers, melon, leeks, onions and garlic. How is this possible? As Rashi points out, if the Egyptians wouldn’t even give them straw to make their bricks, how were they giving them fish for free?

Whether or not the Israelites in fact did eat these foods in Egypt, they have constructed for themselves a memory of the past which is all golden, leaving out the whips and the harsh labor conditions. Why have they done this? As a way to devalue the present, as a way not to inhabit the present, but to look longingly backward.

This is what we humans do. What we have right now is never just right. We are always looking to some other time that was or will be more brilliant, more tasty, more satisfying. Sometimes, we look backward and sometimes we look forward. Most often, as here, we look both directions at once – we remember how good it was then (even when it wasn’t), complain about now, and in the same breath look to the future for something better – feed us meat tomorrow! The Torah calls this feeling here a ta’avah – a craving; it is a desire for something not attainable in the present, a restlessness with what is right now.

This “now is terrible” feeling is encapsulated by the complainers’ choice of words: eyn kol – “there is nothing.” There is nothing in right now, they say. Now feels empty to us. Or maybe they are commenting on their own state of mind – eyn kol – there is no sense of kol – of “everythingness” or “wholeness.” They have diagnosed their own problem here, an emotional, not a physical one; they have no ability to feel kol, “everything,” full and satisfied with the gifts from above, a sense that life is perfect just as it is at this very moment.

Feeling kol or “full” is an ability we celebrate in our foreparents – concerning all the word kol is used. Did Abraham (or Sarah or Isaac or Jacob) always have “everything?” No, but they had a key spiritual/religious capacity – the capacity to feel that right now is kol. This very moment, this simple drink of water, contains inside it the fullness of the entire universe.

Contentment with the present does not preclude change. Change is part of the nature of things, as is expressed in this parsha by the description of the people’s constant movement in the desert – they would travel and encamp, travel and encamp. Change, movement is a part of the reality of the present, part of what needs to be accepted as itself a kind of kol. The Israelites are discontented precisely with the reality of this change in the world– what did you have to go messing up our perfect situation in Egypt for? We didn’t want this change in the first place. Resistance to change is also a form of not accepting the present reality, of not being able to feel a sense of kol or fullness within the swirling winds around us.

Last week’s parsha included the blessing of the priests, which ends with Vaseym Lekha Shalom. May He grant you peace. What is peace other than this sense of kol, this ability to be in the present and feel its fullness, without looking longingly backward or forward? This moment – with all its transitions and transience – this moment is perfect and complete as it is. May we feel this peace.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Parashat Bamidbar and Shavu'ot: On Deserts and the Torah

Make yourself hefker like a desert, the rabbis say. Hefker means ownerless, like an old rag that you put out on the street for anyone who wants to come and take. Let go of your special attachment to yourself, your ownership of yourself, your feeling that the universe revolves around this ego. Become like the desert, free and empty, ownerless and open to the wind.

It is in this state that we receive the Torah, says the Sefat Emet, in this desert place. This week we read on Shabbat the first parsha of the book of Bamidbar, “In the Desert,” and on Tuesday night, we begin the celebration of Shavu’ot, the receiving of the Torah. First we must enter a desert state of mind, and only then do we receive the Torah.

Moshe, the conduit of the Torah, is the ultimate “desert” personality; his primary trait is anavah, humility. He could receive the whole Torah because there was no ego in the way to obscure it. He could see the truth without interference, without worry over whether he was being properly honored or offended. He understood that the project was larger than him, and so he could contain a very large project.

The Torah is a source of personal completion, hashlamah, says the Sefat Emet. The more you are aware of your “holes,” the more room you have to be filled in by Torah. Moshe was not the smartest man that ever lived, but he carried the most Torah because he was the most humble, the most open to completion.

Humility in relation to Torah is not easy. One can easily get trapped in the pursuit of Torah for the sake of communal honor, for the feeding of the ego.

I once heard from Rabbi Don Seeman a connection between this ego issue and the recital of birkhat haTorah, the blessing over Torah study: The Talmud records God as explaining the destruction of the first Temple because “they did not make the blessing of the Torah first” (Nedarim 81a). What does this mean? They were not framing their Torah study as a form of worship, but rather as a personal intellectual endeavor for their own self-aggrandizement. To say birkhat haTorah is to wake up each morning and say that the Torah to be studied today is lishmah “for its own sake,” and not for “one’s own sake.”

Another way of avoiding the pitfall of ego and honor in the pursuit of Torah --of seeking the desert place -- is to acknowledge one’s dependence on others in this pursuit. The last of the 48 qualifications required for the crown of Torah in Pirkei Avot is “one who says what he has learned in the name of the person who said it.” Torah is a communal project. Avraham did not receive it, nor did Yitzhak or Yaakov. Even Moshe was only a conduit for an entire nation who stood together at Mount Sinai to receive God’s wisdom. No single human can contain it, and the more we acknowledge this, the closer we are to that desert place of wisdom and ownerlessness.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Parashat Behar-Bekhukotai: On Harmful Speech

This week’s double parsha, Behar-Bekhukotai, includes, in its discussion of the Jubillee year, an often overlooked law – the prohibition against ona’at devarim, “hurting another through words.”

Some classic examples of ona’at devarim are: reminding a convert of his former life, telling someone who is experiencing misfortune that it is a result of her own misdeeds, going in to a store and acting like one will buy something when one has no money, and asking someone about a matter that one knows that person has no knowledge of in order to show off the person’s ignorance. Included in this last category is asking a guest to give a dvar Torah when one is not sure the guest is capable of it.

The key to ona’at devarim is an intent to harm. It is certainly permissible to enter a store intending to buy shoes, try some on, and leave without buying, even though this harms the store-owner just as much as going into a store with no intent of buying. Or one can ask advice of someone, thinking that he knows a lot about a certain topic, but then it turns out that he doesn’t. Again, there is no intent to harm. The problem is in the heart; one should not purposely intend to make someone look bad, trick them, embarrass them or harm them in any way.

Since these types of harmful actions are, as Rashi says, masur lalev, “given over to heart,” there is no way to enforce them. That’s why, as Rashi points out, the Torah says immediately after this prohibition, veyareta me’elokekha, “Fear your God” – God is the only one who knows what your intent was, what you were thinking inside your heart.

At root in ona’at devarim is a tendency we all have – a desire to make ourselves look good at the expense of another. Look at how much better I am than you because I know this and you don’t. Don’t think you’re so great because look at where you came from. Or: the reason you’re suffering and I’m not is because you did things this way and I was smart enough not to. The specifics can vary widely, and sometimes it can be done quite subtly, but we recognize the feeling behind it and see it often in ourselves and our children. Why are you telling her about your great vacation trip – is it to make her feel bad that she stayed home, to imply that you are so much better than her?

The counter-balance to this way of thinking is provided by the phrase right after Veyareta Me’Elokekha, “Fear your (singular) God” – Ani Hashem Elokeikhem, “I am the Lord your (plural) God.” The key here is the switch from singular to plural in relation to whose God we are worshipping. God is not just my personal God, but the God of all of us. Like a parent who wants all her children to do well, He wants us all to succeed. And, like a parent, He wants us all to be on the same team, to be rooting for one another’s success. Thinking of it in this way, picturing it from God’s standpoint, it becomes clear that we are all in it together, that harm to another is harm to ourselves and that the success of one is the success of us all.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Parashat Emor: Rabbi Yochanan and the Power of Presence

This week everything seems to point to Presence.

In my Talmud Bet Midrash we read a story (Brachot 5b): Rabbi Yochanan visits the ailing Rabbi Hiyya and manages to “lift him up” by asking him about his suffering and then asking him for his hand. Rabbi Yochanan is present for Rabbi Hiyya, is with him in his suffering, and this has the effect of “lifting him up.” In class, we role-played this scene and when, after I described my misery, my partner said to me the simple words: “I am here with you. Give me your hand,” I felt an immediate lifting of trouble from my heart.

The opposite of joy is not sadness but alienation, my brother-in-law said to me this week. How true. Sadness often comes as part of a relationship – the heart aches over someone who is missing or gone – and so, in that sadness, there is still some sense of the comfort of connection. Alienation, isolation has no bittersweetness to it. When one suffers alone, without the “presence” of another, there is truly no joy.

Presence is the answer, then. We can’t prevent suffering or sadness or tragedy. But we can be present with each other during those moments, and, like Rabbi Yochanan, simply sit and hold each other’s hands.

The story of Rabbi Yochanan appears in the Talmud right after a discussion about yesurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” meaning sufferings that can be viewed as a sign of God’s love in some way. Our first thought was that the story goes against the grain of the previous discussion, that R. Yochanan’s act, in simply sitting and holding hands, was meant as a foil for the theology of “sufferings of love”; when it comes down to real life suffering, you can’t explain it theologically and it is often offensive to do so.

Our second thought, though, was that actually R. Yochanan was enacting a theology, a version of “sufferings of love,” perhaps “sufferings with love” -- he was the human conduit for God’s love and Presence in the suffering of another. People often say in reaction to tragedy: But where is God in all this? Where is God? God is present in that human holding of hands.

But not only in the human holding of hands. Rabbi Yochanan’s act could also be understood as a parable for the type of comfort that God’s Presence itself can provide. Someone in our Talmud group once described one of the lowest points she had experienced in her life and how, suddenly, alone and sad, she had felt a Presence surrounding her, enveloping her with a sense of love. Cultivating an awareness of that Presence is part of the goal of a Torah life.

This notion of Presence is particularly relevant to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) that we are in the midst of reading. The point of all those rules of holiness -- of the Tabernacle and the priests who preside in it -- the point of it all is very simply to create a space that can contain God’s Presence in the world, to bring that Presence into the word and cultivate an awareness of it. This is the central book of the Torah and this is the Torah’s central message – to participate in bringing the Presence of God to earth, whether through sacrifice, or as in last week’s portion, through “loving one’s neighbor as oneself” or, as R. Yochanan did, by holding the hands of those who suffer around us.

May we learn to be the Presence and may we learn to feel the Presence, both in joy and in suffering.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: On Holding Back

Among the many mitzvot of purity, holiness, and loving-kindness in this week’s double parsha, one stands out in my mind as paradigmatic of the whole – the mitzvah of pe’ah, of the “corner” – the command to leave the corners of one’s fields unharvested for the needy to collect.

This is a mitzvah of giving, of generosity; one is essentially giving over a certain portion of one’s earnings to the poor. But the mitzvah is not done in the form of giving – I have a basket of produce and I bring it over to you – but in the form of holding oneself back . Generosity appears in the form of self-restraint, retreat from what is officially “mine.” I give to others by refraining from consuming the whole field, by holding myself back from taking over the entirety.

That is also, according to Kabbalistic notions, how God created the world, the ultimate act of generosity. It was only through a process of divine self-withdrawal and contraction known as tzimtzum that there could be enough of a vacuum to allow for the creation of the world.

We are like God, created in His image, containing within us that spark of divinity which is infinite, a microcosm of the entirety of creation. If we let ourselves, we could take over the whole field, the whole world. And so the act of generosity is first and foremost an act of self-contraction, of holding oneself back, of making room in the field for others.

The ultimate image of generosity is of an open hand, God’s open hand. An open hand is empty space. Being generous is about creating open spaces for others to enter into.

I think about this as I go through my day, and watch how my words interrupt the speech of others. Sometimes if I hang back and wait a moment, I have the privilege of watching another person blossom. To give, to be generous, is not just to hold forth, but also to hold back, to make room.

Perhaps that is why this positive morality – the concept of hesed, loving-kindness, of giving generously to another – is framed in the Torah by negative morality, by all the negative commandments about what not to do – forbidden foods and forbidden relations. They share a common underlying habit of mind and practice – self-restraint, the ability to hold oneself back from consuming the entire field, the ability to take make room in the world for others, as God did for us.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Parashat Tazria-Metzora: On Extracting the Negative from the Whole

The rabbis read the word Metzora -- the name of the second of this week’s two parshiyyot, which literally means “one who has leprosy” – as a play on the phrase, Motzi Shem Ra, “one who gossips,” or literally, “one who puts out a bad name.” This is the classic notion that skin disease is linked to a tendency to gossip or speak ill of others.

The problem here, says the Sefat Emet, is that people are being Motzi Ra, “pulling out the negative,” from the mix. In every single thing and every single creature, including all humans, there is both ra and tov, bad and good, says the Sefat Emet. That is the way God created the world and us and, when He looked at it and said it was tov me’od, “very good,” that, according to the midrash, meant both the good and bad together. When they are all together, then the bad can be subservient, can be used as a tool for the good. The only problem with evil, ra, is when you pull it out – motzi ra – from the whole.

We need not erase or deny the negative in ourselves or in others. We just need to make it a part of the whole. In the Shma, we say that one should love God bekhol levavekha, “with all your heart.” The rabbis interpret the double letter bet in “heart” as an indication that the Torah means “with both your hearts,” with both your negative and positive capacities. The idea is to use all parts of yourself in the service of God and the Torah.

“Pulling out the bad” is an apt description of gossip. It’s not that these things we say aren’t true; it’s just that they’re not the whole measure of a person. By taking out the negative for special focus and examination, we haven’t let it be part of the whole. That person is disorganized and loud-mouthed. Yes, but he’s also enthusiastic and good-natured. People are a package deal. If you took out the salt from the food, the salt on its own wouldn’t taste good, but as part of the whole, it fits and enhances the general flavor.

When you take the negative out from the whole in describing another person, you do more than damage that person. You damage yourself in the process. The salt doesn’t taste good on its own; when we gossip, we feel badly ourselves. We are participating in the process of extracting the bad from the whole and that is not a pleasant process. The negative wears off on us and we feel negative about ourselves and the world as well. That is the logic of the connection between speaking ill of others and finding yourself afflicted with a skin disease. You have outed the negative in another and in so doing you have caused your own negative parts also to be externalized in the form of a public skin malady. As the saying goes, when you point one finger at someone else, you are pointing three fingers back at yourself. The goal is to bring the negative back into the whole, to make it serve the purposes of the good, so that if you want to “pull out” anything, you can pull out the good that is in all creatures.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Passover and Togetherness

I think the theme of Passover is togetherness.

According to the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:1), one should not eat on the afternoon before Passover. In fact, the Mishnah says, even the poorest person in Israel should not eat then. It goes on to say that once we arrive at the Seder even the poor should be provided with a full four cups of wine.

Why don’t we eat on the afternoon before the Seder? The Mishnah hints at the reason through its discussion of the poor --- the point is to feel the everyday suffering of the poor, to create a situation where all of Israel joins in the suffering of the hungry for one afternoon. We begin our Seder hungry – all of us, the wealthy, the poor, the fortunate and the unfortunate – as a way of indicating that we are all in this together. No one suffers alone on this night. We suffer together.

By the same token, when it comes to the wine, to rejoicing and celebration, no one should be left out either. The Talmud points out that normally poor people may have some resistance to accepting help, and would prefer to dine simply rather than accept charity. Not so on Passover, the Talmud ordains. On Passover, everyone must be equally well-dined – with a full 4 cups of wine -- and if this requires charity, so be it. Just as we suffer together, so we celebrate together. Today we are all poor, today we are all slaves, and today we are also all wealthy, also all free. Today we are together.

Perhaps that sense of connectedness is true freedom. We speak of being brought out of Mitzrayim, literally, “the narrow spaces.” What is narrower, more constraining than the confines of the individual self, the ego that holds us separate from others? Today we declare ourselves free of such confines, today we suffer together, and today we celebrate together. On Rosh HaShanah the world was created and human beings are born as individuals, but on Passover, the nation – the notion of a collective identity – is born. Today we celebrate togetherness.

This is a broad notion of togetherness, as broad as the straits of “Mitzrayim” are narrow – it stretches out not just horizontally, but also vertically – throughout time. Again and again, we say bekhol dor vador, “In every generation.” The Haggadah is a patchwork of voices from different eras of Jewish history. We go all the way back to Egypt in our suffering, but we can’t help but also think of the Crusades, pogroms, the Holocaust. This is a moment of connections across time and space.

And this togetherness strengthens us. Suffering alone is slavery. Suffering together marks the beginning of redemption and freedom, so that when we enter the celebratory side of the holiday, and the celebratory side of history, we do it together.

On Passover: From Shame to Praise?

“He begins with shame and concludes with praise.” That is how the Mishnah describes the movement of the Haggadah, from shame – the shame of slavery and idolatry-- to praise – praising God for redeeming us from slavery and for providing us with a new religious structure.

From shame to praise. There is something unequal about this dichotomy. The opposite of shame is not praise, but pride. The Sefat Emet must have been picking up on this in his comment to this phrase: “He who wants to talk about shame, should shame himself, and he who wants to praise, should praise the Creator.” Shame and praise are indeed not on the same continuum. They have different subjects. The subject of shame is humanity. The subject of praise is God.

The movement of the Passover Haggadah, then, is not just a movement from slavery to freedom, from a humble state to an exalted one, from national shame to national pride. No, the movement is from one scheme, one way of thinking about things to a totally different one, from a human-centered perspective to a God-centered one.

Both shame and pride are problematic. They are two sides of the same coin – the coin that claims that it’s all about us and our egos, that we should reflect on our own worth based on what happens to us, how people treat us or even what we achieve in the world.

On Passover we declare a freedom from such self-referential thinking. It is not about shame or pride or any other ego-driven emotion. The point is to let go of self, of ego, and simply praise God – feel the smallness of our selves and the largeness of the world and the One who created it. Such a movement is indeed a movement from the constriction of Mitzrayim, the narrow straits of ego, to a broader space. Praise is nothing if not large. That is the feeling of the song of Dayenu – we well up with praise like fruit out of a cornucopia -- we are so blessed, so grateful -- there is no limit. This is the feeling we are working toward. We end the Seder with the prayer, Nishmat – the ultimate expression of limitless gratitude. “If our lips were full of song like the sea, . . . we could not express the full measure of our gratitude.”

From shame to praise. From self-reference to God-reference. From a constricted place to a broad place of open seas and flying eagles. May we be open to it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

On Passover and Vayikra: Clearing the Way

Sometimes it feels like there is a huge amount of junk blocking the truth in our minds and our souls. There is a restless swirl of things to do, worries, and ego protections constantly flooding the brain, leaving no space for the stillness of truth, the divine, eternity.

The way forward requires clearing the path. The Piasetzner Rebbe taught a technique for sensing the divine which is called hashkatah, “quieting.” It involves a gradual clearing of the brain until it lies quiet and unperturbed, and then is ready for a single holy thought. I imagine my mind as a box full of junk and I imagine myself throwing out pieces, one after another, until the box sits empty, open to being filled from above.

That is what we are doing now in preparing for Passover – emptying our cabinets to make room for something fresh and pure. The principal task of preparing for a divine encounter is a removal of obstacles. Hametz symbolizes such obstacles – the things that slow us down normally, that occupy our time like the process of bread-baking, the process of puffing ourselves up, creating an image of ourselves that is large and expansive.

But on Passover we shrink down, we empty out, and we therefore open up to something, become, as the Hasidic masters say, a kli, an open vessel for divine overflow.

This week’s parsha, Vayikra, deals with korbanot, a word that is translated as “sacrifices” but also means “things that bring you karov, close.” Perhaps what brings you close – to God, to truth, to a web of connectedness -- are precisely sacrifices – things that you give up about yourself in order to become open to something else. There has to be some shedding of self, of the klipah, the “outer shell,” to make room for others and for Another.

Last week’s parsha ended with the statement that Moshe was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting when the cloud of God’s presence covered it, and this week’s parsha begins with God’s call to Moshe to come in --- Vayikra el Moshe. The Sefat Emet says that the two are linked -- Moshe’s humility in last week’s parsha, his ability to step backward, to put himself behind the scenes, was precisely what brought him close enough to have God invite him inside in this week’s parsha. Like the way we start our Amidah prayer, a step backwards, a shedding of self, is required before the next step forward.

As we prepare for Passover, we, too, take a step back, shed something, go back to some simple essential self. Maybe we can throw out, along with the crackers, some of the clutter in our heads that blocks the way to closer connections -- to our family and friends at the Seder, and to the Eternal Presence that provides redemption in every generation.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Parashat Vaykhel-Pekudei: On Generosity and Gratitude

How do you turn complainers into active participating members of a community? Create a space for them to give. People like to give, like to be part of things. The very same Israelites who complain incessantly throughout their years in the desert -- we don’t have enough water and food, we want watermelon and meat – those same Israelites jump over one another to bring precious metals and stones and fabrics and their own creativity and expertise to the building of the Tabernacle here in our parsha. People actually want to give – it makes us feel good to be part of something larger than ourselves.

When we are giving, we don’t complain. Giving makes us feel rich and generous. There is bounty – the Israelites gave dayam ve’hoter, “enough and even more.” One can sense the excitement in the air – the whole community was rallying around this one project, each person contributing in her own way, feeling needed and a part of things. People want and need a communal space to bring their material wealth, their talents, and also their hearts (the Torah emphasizes again and again that the contributors were moved by the upsurging of their hearts – me’et kol ish asher nesa’o libo).

The Golden Calf was also a communal giving project, and it proved the need for such a project and the people’s willingness to give to it. Aaron said – get gold, and two second later, presto, there was enough gold to make a calf. People want to give. But to what end? The Golden Calf was simply a glorification of the gold itself – a celebration of the people’s egos – look at how beautiful our gold looks!

But the Tabernacle takes giving to another level. It creates a space where the giving that is done is in the service of God, and so becomes a way to acknowledge our appreciation of and our continued dependence on God. It creates a space where generosity is linked to gratitude. Generosity is easier for us than gratitude, because when we give, we feel good about ourselves, whereas gratitude involves a retreat of the ego, an admission that we are not self-contained, but very much dependent on others. The Tabernacle is where generosity and gratitude meet – where one can turn the natural inclination to want to give and participate not into a glorification of the self but into an acknowledgement of the self’s limitations, its interdependence on others and the Other.

Shabbat again helps to create this balance, to ensure that the contributions – the gold we give and the tapestries we weave in this world – are not ultimately aimed at self-glorification, but are tempered, even fueled, by an awareness that God created the world and us.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Parashat Ki Tisa: On Learning to Wait

Here we are confronted with the classical “sin” of the Israelites – the making of the Golden Calf. What is at its root? An inability to sit with the feeling of not knowing the future. Moshe has been up on the mountain for a long time, and he seems to be “late” coming down. The people say: “This man Moshe, who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.” We don’t know. Did he die up there? Is he late because he is still with God, or is he late because he starved to death and is never coming back? We don’t know, and this not knowing is uncomfortable; it makes us worried, anxious, restless.

All that would have been fine. We all experience such moments of worry and anxiety over an unknown future. Waiting and not knowing is hard. The problem was that the Israelites did not have the fortitude to ride through such emotions; they felt the need to immediately act on them. Before they even say why – express their worry – they already want to act. They say to Aaron: “Get up and make us a god who will go before us, for this man Moshe, who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.” Aaron, you must act, create, do, because we can’t stand this state of not knowing! The golden calf is a symbol of action borne out of anxiety, out of an inability to wait patiently to see how life will unfold.

We all have these moments, moments of doubt and uncertainty, of a kind of restless anxiety which tells us – act, act, act, fix, fix, fix – otherwise the world will fall apart! But such actions, borne out of an atmosphere of confusion and lack of clarity – out of a nation that is paru’a, “out of control” (32:25) – only muddy the waters (like the ash-sprinkled water the Israelites are given to drink) and ultimately create a bigger mess than we already had.

This is not to say there is no role for human action and human fixing of the world, only to caution us that moments of deep anxiety and restlessness, those very moments when we are most apt to want to act, but to act rashly and haphazardly, are not the time for action. They are the time for sitting still, for sitting with the worry, the uncertainty, and not trying to change a thing, but trying to recapture that sense of faith, that sense that the world is already perfect, that all is already well. They are a time for learning how to wait restfully, to see how things turn out, before we jump into action to fix them.

Perhaps the need for such restfulness amidst doubt and anxiety is the reason that the commandment to keep Shabbat appears right before and right after the Golden Calf incident. Shabbat stands guard against future Golden Calfs. It is a day when no creative action is allowed; one simply exists in the world, with none of that restless sense that the world needs changing. If we have doubts and worries, that is fine; on Shabbat, we can feel them and watch them come and go, not in the workaday context of action, but in the peaceful context of spiritual consciousness.