Thursday, January 31, 2013

Parashat Yitro: On Yitro and the Torah

Why is the parsha of Mount Sinai – arguably the most important parsha in the Torah -- called “YItro”? Why couldn’t the parshiyyot have been broken up in a way that begins at Mount Sinai, instead of beginning with the story of Yitro’s arrival in the desert and his advice to Moshe? Why is this story about a foreigner the prelude to the 10 commandments?

I have 3 different thoughts on this issue:
1) Perhaps to teach us that Torah does not only happen amidst lightning and thunder, in a clear divine revelation on a mountain. Torah also happens among people – when one person helps another, giving valuable advice about how to proceed, as Yitro did – instructing Moshe to appoint others as judges, not to do it alone. This human advice, given by a non-Israelite, is itself Torah. We should be on the look-out for such truth and wisdom as it comes to us from all different arenas, because that, too, comes from God, as surely as did the commandments on Mount Sinai.

2) Yitro’s message to Moshe was not to do it alone. This message is a perfect prelude to the public giving of the Torah. The Torah was not given to Moshe alone, but to all of us. It is our communal inheritance. As we say, Torah tziva lanu Moshe, Morashah Kehillat Yaakov. Yes, Moshe instructed us concerning the Torah, but it is an inheritance for the entire congregation of Yaakov. This point is also emphasized in the exodus. Pharaoh argues that it should be enough for just the men to go out to the desert to worship their Lord, but Moshe insists – bena’areinu uvezekuneinu nelekh. We will go with our young and our old. Torah is a communal affair. Yitro understands this in a deep way and suggests to Moshe that his institutional organization should reflect this principle of communal ownership of the Torah.

3) Yitro’s attitude toward the good news of the exodus exemplifies the essence of the Torah understanding of relations between people. The Torah says Vayihad Yitro – Yitro experienced hedvah, joy, upon hearing about God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. He is not an Israelite himself, but he is happy for the good of others; he is what they call in Yiddish a ferginer, someone who knows how to be happy at other people’s good fortunes. The exact inverse of such an attitude is the feeling the last of the 10 commandments warns against – jealousy or covetousness, the feeling that one wishes to take away another person’s good and make it one’s own. In this way, Yitro’s positive exemplification, and the commandments’ negative articulation form a frame around the experience of Sinai, implying that the ability to feel happy for others is at the heart of the Torah. Indeed, that was R. Akiva’s famous assessment – “Love your neighbor as yourself; this is the most essential principle of the Torah.”

These ideas are related to each other: Having the Torah as our communal project, and understanding that many different people, like Yitro, have a contribution to make to it, both help us to move beyond the barrier of the self and see clearly our dependence on and connection with one another so that we do not feel jealous of another’s success, but happy and joyful, since we are all part of the same project. The Torah is the web that connects us, that dissolves for us in a clarifying way the illusion that we are each separate beings with competing agendas. Yitro sees this clearly when Moshe tries to do it alone: “You will wear yourself out, you as well as this nation that is with you.” The nation and Moshe, all are inter-connected. This understanding of deep interdependence is the reality, the ground, upon which the Torah is given.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Parashat Beshallah: In the Aftermath of Song

Imagine the high the Israelites felt at the Red Sea – a joy born of overwhelming relief and a clarity of gratitude and faith in life, in God, in all that is good -- such joy, washing over them like the waters of the Sea, rising up in them as waves of jubilant song.

But then, after the high, the everyday problems of life return, stronger and more bothersome than ever. There is the matter of water that is too bitter to drink, and the continuing dogged basic issues of food and drink in the barren desert.

That is our experience, too, of spiritual highs. They feel good at the time, but then we’re left with a sense of emptiness, of hunger and thirst afterward. The children cry and whine; the car breaks down; the mundane peeks its nasty head back up, as if to taunt us in our attempts to escape it – don’t think you’re so great for having sung and fasted all day on Yom Kippur, for having tasted briefly some other spiritual realm – you’re still the same human with a normal life to lead, full of daily exasperations that can get you down. And you’re still capable, maybe even more capable, of complaining about it all.

One intense spiritual experience does not a life of faith make. It takes a lifetime of training -- 40 years of desert dependence, 40 years of seeing the manna come down from heaven each day anew, 40 years of single days, to become a people of faith.

Each day in the desert the people received only what they needed for that day – dvar yom beyomo. The goal was to learn not to look back longingly at the pots of flesh in Egypt nor to worry over tomorrow’s food and drink and the possibility of starvation in the desert. But just to sit with the gift of today and be thankful. For today.

That is the training that balances those rare moments of intense spiritual highs, the ability to sit with today and feel its miraculousness, the fact that today, I am well-fed, and that today, the sun rose (as we say each morning – hamehadesh bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh breishit, “Who renews each day the work of creation”), and that, today, I breathe and live.

What good is the song then? What good those spiritual highs, those rare moments of ecstasy and intense connection? They, too, have their place. They begin the journey, as here; they are the source of inspiration, the touchstone we return to through the trials of everyday life. Perhaps, on some level, the goal is to erase the distinction, to create such a strong sense of joy and gratitude in the everyday manna that we receive that we can sing every day as we did at the Sea, that we can feel that every day is the day of redemption. The memory of that song reminds us of the kind of joy we are capable of; we are training ourselves to carry it with us, to make each day – no matter its difficulties – its own song.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Parashat Bo: On Freedom and Eternity

Something changes about the Torah’s narrative in the middle of this week’s parsha. For 9 plagues we have followed the story as it unfolds in the normal narrative time of Egypt – with its warning speeches to Pharaoh, description of the plagues and their repercussions, and the continual hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Now suddenly, on the eve of the 10th plague, on the eve of the transition from slavery to freedom, the narrative ceases to exist only in the present of Egyptland, and moves into a new type of “Torah” discourse aimed at “all eternity.”

Here, for the first time, are mitzvot, commandments, like the paschal sacrifice and the redemption of the first born and the holiday of Passover and the wearing of tefillin and the retelling of the story to one’s children. These mitzvot transport the narrative out of its present time and into a kind of eternal time. Again and again, the Torah says that these commandments should be kept ledoroteikhem hukat olam -- for all your generations, as an eternal rule. Somehow, the present moment of that first Passover is larger than life, a time that touches all future generations.

On the eve of our national freedom, we learn what true freedom means -- a connection to eternity. For, as mortals, we are in some sense still in bondage in Egypt, bounded in by the limitations of our time on this earth. We are none of us free of death, and therefore, in some sense, always constrained. (Don’t we find time to be our biggest daily and lifelong constraint – if only I had the time . . . ?)

At the moment of their transition from slavery to freedom, the Israelites experience a present moment that is totally free because it is forever. That moment – which is repeatedly called b’etzem hayom hazeh, “on that very day” (or, literally, “on the essence of that day”) – is such a deep moment of present time that it somehow breaks the barriers of history and exists in some other divine space of non-time or all-time.

How do we replicate this? How do we access this kind of eternal time in our own lives? The Torah and its mitzvot are meant to be our way in. The Torah is our etz hayim, which means not just “tree of mortal life” but tree of eternal life, of “living,” of knowing how to be a truly free, “living” human being.

Blessings are a classic example of how this works – they sanctify the everyday, invest each act with deeper significance, so that we feel how the present moment opens up to a field of eternity. Blessings are the concept, but the attitude should pervade everything. We know this feeling from holidays like Passover or Rosh HaShanah when we naturally exist on some vertical plain, connected to all past generations who have celebrated in this way. With the right attitude, every day, every moment could become such a doorway – like the bloodied one of the Passover night – to freedom, to redemption, to this feeling of timelessness. The key is to dig deeply – to access the present in the form of an etzem hayom hazeh -- to feel the present in its essence as presence. The deeper the present, the deeper the access to that out of bounds time, that freedom from mortal constraint, that sense of Eternal Presence.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Parashat Va'era: On Seeing the Miracle

God first appeared (last week) to Moshe as a burning bush. (Actually, the Torah says that first it was an angel in the burning bush, and only later was it God in the bush speaking to Moshe.) Maybe this was a test: What made God decide to speak to him, to choose him as His partner on earth? “Moshe said: I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” It was Moshe’s ability to turn aside from his regular affairs and notice the marvels around him that earned him a relationship with God.

Moshe could have been too busy to notice. He could have been preoccupied with the task of keeping track of the sheep. It is much easier not to take notice of things. Would any of us have turned aside to notice the burning bush? Our children would have. They would have called to us to come see, and we would have said: Hold on. Let me first finish writing this. And then we would have missed it.

That’s what this week’s parsha is about – how difficult it is to notice God in the world. Moshe comes and tells the people of Israel that God is about to redeem them, but the Torah says that they could not hear him mikotzer ru’ah ume’avodah kasha, “because of a shortness of breath and hard work.” They were too busy to take the time, too stressed to even hear something new. No, no – don’t tell me about that now; I have to get these bricks done.

Such a stressed-out life is one which is indeed short of breath --it is short of the breath that God breathed in to our nostrils when He formed us. It is lacking a sense of the divine daily running through us. We are too busy running to take notice of the fact that we breathe and that, that, too, is a miracle.

But of course the most stubborn of non-seers of the divine in this parsha is Pharaoh. It takes 10 plagues, 10 open displays of God’s control of the universe (10 in your face burning bushes) for him to see it. While Moshe turned towards the marvel of the bush, Pharaoh, the Torah says, during the plague of blood, “turned and went into his house, paying no regard even to this.” He turned away, toward his house, toward his regular human affairs, refusing to allow a sense of the miraculous, the divine, to enter his consciousness.

We don’t usually think to identify with Pharaoh, but are we really so different from him? What daily miracles have we turned away from? (Is a glorious sunset so different from a burning bush?)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Parashat Shmot: How One Mother Redeemed Israel

The whole Israelite redemption began with a simple motherly act – Moshe’s mother saw that he was “good,” tov. The Torah doesn’t say it as a fact: “He was good,” but as the subjective judgment of his mother—she thought he was good; she saw goodness in him. And so he became good. He grew up to be good, to do good, to save his people and bring the Torah down to earth. And it all began with his mother’s ability to see that goodness in him, to draw it out and let it grow.

Was he intrinsically good? The midrash says when Moshe was born the house filled with light. Every child is a light to our world, has the ability to fill our houses with light. The question is whether we see that light, whether we, like Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, are attuned to its goodness, take the time to cherish it and preserve it.

Seeing the goodness in the world is a divine quality; in the story of creation, the same words are used for God as are here used for Yocheved: “And God saw that it was good,” ki tov hu. Yocheved started the redemption going, began the process of getting people out of the centuries-old despair of enslavement by noticing the goodness around her. She could have weepd at the birth of her child – to what end am I brining another Israelite child into the world – to suffer more like the rest of us? But no –amidst the worst of conditions, she was still able to see the good, to see this child as a gift, and to cherish it.

The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, literally “recognition of the good.” It doesn’t just mean saying thank you when someone passes you the potatoes. It means recognizing that there is already abundant goodness around you in the world – seeing that the light God created is indeed tov, as is the food you eat and the way you breathe, and yes, seeing that your children are also divine gifts of light and tov.

Out of such a worldview comes redemption, daily redemption. There is no force of evil that can vanquish those who recognize the good in the world. Think of the myriads of Egyptian powers that Yocheved’s act of noticing Moshe’s goodness eventually conquered. She brought God back down to earth, insisting that, as He had originally proclaimed, tov hu, there is goodness in the things and people around her.