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.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Parashat Terumah: From Between the Cherubs

In this week’s parsha, we enter the world of Tabernacle construction (continued for most of the rest of the book of Exodus). The Israelites in the desert are asked to construct a mobile “dwelling place” for God to live on earth, one they can take apart and carry with them wherever they go. This task encapsulates the essence of Torah – to bring God into the world, into everyday life, wherever one goes.

So it is with great interest that we should read these parshiyyot – how does one accomplish such a task? Perhaps the key lies in the first of the Tabernacle items described in the parsha – the aron, the ark. Where does God reside within the Tabernacle? He is said to appear and speak in the space between the two cherubs standing over the ark. These two cherubs are to be facing each other, ish el ahiv , literally, “one toward its brother.” How do we bring God’s presence down to earth? Where does He reside today? In the places where we face each other, working together in a common enterprise, like the two cherubs with their wings outstretched, together creating a canopy over the ark.

This term ish el ahiv, “one man toward his brother,” is repeated numerous times throughout the parsha, most often, later, in the feminine, ishah el ahotah, “one woman toward her sister,” referring to the joining of separate cloths together to make a cover for the Tabernacle. Another frequent term is vehibarta, “you should join or attach” from the same root as the modern Hebrew haver, friend. We also find here the use of an unusual word, te’omim, which here refers to the matching up of planks, and in modern Hebrew means “twins.” The Tabernacle is constructed on the principle of teamwork and friendship, of the joining of separate pieces.

Indeed, the construction of the Tabernacle is the model of a task that cannot be accomplished by one person. It requires weavers, sculptors and carpenters, artists, engineers and managers, all working in concert. The physical details of construction mirror the human process – people are being joined together as well as planks, one facing toward the other.

It is precisely in such spaces of joint effort that God’s presence resides.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Parashat Mishpatim/Shekalim: On Being a Half

How much do I matter in the world? Do I “count”? Where do I stand in relation to others and to the cosmic whole of things?

This week, in addition to Parashat Mishpatim, we read an additional pre-Passover reading of Shekalim, the command to have each person contribute a half-shekel as a way of taking a census.

A half-shekel – we need to wrap our minds around the notion of ourselves as halves. Halves in relation to other people, halves in relation to God and to the universe. This means tapping in to that yearning first experienced by the lonely Adam, looking for a mate, to feel the depth of our individual incompleteness, and the corollary, our interconnectedness with all that is. We yearn for connection, with each other, and also with some larger Being who is our Source.

Giving a half is the ultimate act of generosity. It makes it clear that I cannot do it alone, and so makes room, an opening, for another. The Hasidim talk about making ourselves into a kli, an open vessel, and we have the frequent image of God’s open-handed generosity in our tefilot (prayers). Openness and generosity go hand in hand. Generosity requires giving, but also an awareness of our own limitations, and our need for the other. There is in true generosity both a feeling of overflowing and a retreat, a retreat of the ego to provide space for others.

Being half is a joyful state, the state of joining hands in a spirited dance. And so we read this parsha about half-shekels right before the month of Adar, whose essence is joy. We are joyous because we are not alone, and we know that we do not carry the burden alone, that our role is merely, as the Pirkei Avot saying goes, to participate in the work, not to finish it. This provides both relief and joy as, through a slight retreat of the ego, we open ourselves to the Infinite around us. By being half, we become part of All.