Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hanukah: Learning to See the Miraculous

A story is told about R. Hanina ben Dosa (Talmud Taanit 25a). One Shabbat afternoon, seeing that his daughter was sad, he asked her what was the matter. She answered that she had mistakenly put vinegar instead of oil into the Shabbat lamp and was worried there would be no light for Shabbos. R. Hanina said to her: What do you care? Don’t worry. The One who told the oil to burn can also tell the vinegar to burn. (And so it was – the vinegar burned all through that Shabbat).

Rabbi Hanina has an interesting perspective on life. For him there is no difference between oil burning and vinegar burning. They are both acts of God. They are both miracles. It is with the same sense of awe and gratitude and amazement that he approaches the everyday miracle of oil light as the extraordinary miracle of vinegar light.

Maybe this is the message of Hanukah. The word we keep using for miracle on Hanukah is nes, a word that also means “banner” or “sign.” What are the miracles of Hanukah, the military victory and the oil miracle of 8 days? They are signs – messages to us about the miraculous nature of life in general. In their very extraordinariness, we see clearly the hand of God in the world, and with this light shining, we start to see it in the ordinary as well. That light we just lit to remember the oil miracle – that light we lit is itself miraculous with its sparkling flame born out of nothing and filled with a magical energy. God is in light, in the flame all the time, yet we don’t see it. It takes the miracle of Hanukah to point us back to the miracle of light and of life in general.

Oh, to be like R. Hanina ben Dosa! To see clearly the hand of God in the ordinary. To see the flicker of divine light in the child before us and the husband beside us and the snow on the ground. This Hanukah that is what I pray for – that we can understand the signposts as witnesses to the divine not just in the extraordinary but also in the ordinary. We thank you God not just al hanisim ve’al hapurkan . . . , for the special miracles of Haunkah, but also al nisekha shebekhol yom imanu, also for the miracles that are with us daily.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Parsaht Vayeshev: To be Like A Rock in Times of Trouble

Steadfast. To be like a rock through trouble, through the ups and downs of life, of our own changing moods and the constantly changing environment around us.

Sometimes we have the urge to run away when we are feeling down, to quit, to turn away from trouble, even to jump out the window and end it all, just to escape.

But what makes us strong is the ability to simply survive through it, to be like a rock that cannot run or be washed away, but simply sits and witnesses.

In the Torah this week, we are entering a period of great trouble for Yaakov and his family. The midrash says on the first verse of the parsha that Yaakov wanted, after all his earlier troubles, now to simply live in tranquility and it was this desire that brought the face of trouble back – there is no rest in this world; only in the next one.

And so begins the painful saga of the brothers’ cruel treatment of Yosef and his slavery, and Yaakov’s great suffering over the loss of his favorite son.

How do Yaakov and Yosef and all of us reading along get through it? Yaakov is associated with rocks. When he leaves his parental home, he sleeps on a rock, then lifts a rock off a well and finally makes a treaty with Lavan with rocks. I have always understood these rocks as a metaphor for the hardness of Yaakov’s life, for the troubles themselves, but now I think perhaps the rock is also a metaphor for the ability to get through those troubles. He is like a rock, surviving the rushing waters around him.

This week we talked in my middle school class about the phrase tzur hayenu, that God is “the rock of our lives.” One student came up to the board and drew a picture of a waterfall with some stepping stones along the way to hold on to. That’s what God is – the stones that we hold on to along the way that keep us from falling headfirst into the raging waters.

Later in life, Yaakov continues to speak of the harshness of his life, but he also speaks about a sense of protectedness, of the angel that protected him from all evil wherever he went.

How did Yaakov survive? He lay on a rock, on the hardness of life, and in the rock he found God standing above him, helping him to be, like the rock, steadfast through the difficulties.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Parashat Vayishlach: On Prayer

I noticed the other day, as I was making a personal petition to God, that what I was praying for was that God should help me accomplish my goals. Suddenly such prayer seemed very wrong, almost idolatrous, as if instead of worshipping God, I was worshipping my own ambitions/desires, and subordinating God, too, to this foreign god. Please help me accomplish this, help me succeed, . . .

The realization came as a tremendous relief. Instead of asking God to do my will, I thought, I should be asking myself to do His will. Of course, there is the problem of knowing what His will is, and to some extent, some of my personal goals do involve things related to what I perceive to be His will – Help me to spread your Torah, for instance. Nonetheless, the emphasis is different. The question is – whose will is at the center of the enterprise, God’s or mine? And I find it a tremendous relief to remember to bend to His, to remember to place my own little life and its little obstacles and goals and successes in the cosmic scheme of service to the Holy One. Instead of bending God down to me, I feel myself being elevated by the thought – love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Give yourself completely over to Him.

The thought reminded me of a famous rabbinic expression – aseh retzono kiretzonkha kide sheya’aseh retzonkha kiretzono – make His will like your will so that He will make your will like His will. Align yourself to His plan and He will indeed help you succeed. You will be on the same team.

Looking at the parsha with this thought in my mind, I was struck by the end of Yaakov’s prayer for help upon hearing of Esav’s threatening approach with 400 men. Yaakov says – please help me for I fear he will kill me and my whole family, and You, God, told me that my offspring would be many. Normally, I read this cynically enough – Yaakov is trying to remind God to keep his promises. This year, though, it struck me that Yaakov is telling us something about the place from which this prayer emerges inside him – He is not just praying to God to help him accomplish his own, tiny Yaakov’s personal goals – the continuation of his family line – no, no – Yaakov has aligned himself with God’s plans for him, with the destiny that God has ordained for him, and it is out of this alignment of will that he cries out. He cries out because there seems to be a possible disruption not to his own personal plans, but to Yaakov’s understanding of his own role in God’s plan for history, in his divine destiny.

The difference is subtle but essential – Yaakov understood his place in God’s world, understood himself as a servant of God, one with a role to play in the divine plan, and it is out of this understanding that he cries out.

May we know how to turn to God with a heart of service.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Parashat Hayei Sarah and the Eternity of Hesed: In Honor of My Father's First Yahrtzeit

Avraham’s central trait – what he brings into the world that helps begin the process of fixing it – is hesed, loving kindness. We have already seen other acts of his hesed -- reaching out to others to invite them into his home and interceding on their behalf in war and in prayer – but in this week’s parsha we catch a glimpse of the ultimate act of hesed, one that can never be reciprocated --- burial, the final kindness shown to the dead.

Burial teaches us something important about the nature of hesed – hesed keeps going; it has no end. A person dies and you think – that’s it. The love, the connection, the relationship is over. But no – the fact that you can still do an act of hesed for the dead, the fact that this act is considered the purest form of hesed there is teaches us that hesed does not die, that something of a connection of love always remains in the world.

Of God’s hesed, we say ki le’olam hasdo – it is forever, and I think this is inherent in the nature of hesed. It is not just love, but a loyal love that says – I will stick with you through thick and thin and never leave. That’s why God praises our ability to follow Him in the desert as hesed -- zakharti lakh hesed ne’urayikh -- I have remembered the hesed of your youth – how you followed Me – were steadfast and loyal to Me through the difficult period of the desert. That is what hesed is – a love that continues, keeps going, even, it turns out, after death. That is also why Ruth’s actions are called hesed -- she is said to have acted with hesed toward both “the living and the dead.”

Hesed is love that never ends. It is love that has an overflowing quality to it – like Rivkah’s pronouncement that she will draw water not just for Eliezer, but also for his camels – that is how hesed works. It doesn’t stop at Eliezer, just as it doesn’t stop in time – it overflows, keeps giving.

It keeps giving because it sets into motion a never-ending chain of hesed. The parsha’s two big deaths – that of Sarah at one end and that of Avaham at the other end – frame for us the continuing life that emerges in the middle – how Rivkah continues this hesed and a new couple, a new generation of hesed, is begun, born out of the hesed of the last generation. Love breeds more love. They continue, we continue the legacy of hesed -- hesed does not die, but is constantly growing and building more hesed in the world.

Olam Hesed Yivbaneh (Psalms 89:3)-- the world is built out of love. God created the universe out of the stuff of love, and He and we continue constantly to build it out of love. Love is what makes the world go round. It is the past, the present as well as the future, the ground we walk on.

I ask myself two questions, now, after a year of my father’s absence: 1) what is missing for me, and 2) what remains of the relationship – and the answer to both is the same – love. What is missing is the love, and also what remains is the love.

I miss his special way of zero-ing in on me and supporting me and loving me like no one else can.

At the same time, I carry that love with me. Lying next to my youngest son, Asher, at bedtime one night, I feel the intensity of my love for him and think – what good does such love do? What does he get from it? And then I feel what my own parents gave me, and know the answer – love is a protective shield, an aura, an angel, we carry with us. Does it protect us? Not outwardly. We can still get sick, we can still have troubles. But in some deep way, it surrounds us and buoys us and carries us through life and helps us stand and withstand.

We say that God is magen Avraham -- a shield for Avraham, and therefore, in some sense, a shield for us all. There is a Hasidic notion that every act of hesed a person does draws down God’s hesed from above. Avraham created a shield of love through his acts of hesed in the world.

What remains after someone dies? Love remains because it is eternal. Through his love, my father brought down for me God’s love, and I will always carry this love with me, like a protective cloud, wherever I go.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

You Built Your Sukkah: Now Live in It!

In the desert, God built us sukkot to protect us from the elements. In Ledavid Hashem Ori Veyishi, the Psalm we have been reciting since the beginning of Elul, we say that God hides us in a sukkah on a bad day. The sukkah is the feeling we have of having God around us to protect us and guide us and weather the weather with us.

In the desert, God built our sukkah, but today we build our own sukkah. Indeed, we have spent the past month and a half building it. It is made of our prayers and repentance; it is woven out of our desire to be close to God – our statement of ahat sha’alti – one thing I desire and it is to dwell in God’s house. Out of these words, this song of the soul, this yearning, is indeed built a kind of sukkah, a place for us to dwell where we may feel God’s presence and protection.

The sukkah does not come out of thin air. People often complain – I would pray, but I don’t believe in God. The order is the opposite – one comes to believe in God through the very act of praying. You have to construct your own sukkah in this life, your own sacred space where you help yourself feel the divine. It is just as much work as the physical act of building that hut. And that is the work we have been doing these past weeks.

Sukkot is the holiday where we say – You built your sukkah; now live in it! In other words – you have worked so hard on this relationship; now enjoy it and live in it. Live in it now and carry it with you through the year. Reap the harvest.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Teshuva (Returning)

Teshuvah. Returning. The return is a constant one we need to do every day and every hour in our minds. To remember what matters. To remember what our purpose is. Not to give in to despair, but to feel God’s presence amidst all that swirls around us.

Ahat sha’alti. One thing I really desire, and that is to sit in God’s house, to feel that I am not alone, that I am surrounded and buoyed by His loving presence. Though I am surrounded by a military camp, goes the Psalm, still I feel secure. Whatever craziness happens around me, I am at peace in God’s light.

But only if I remember that there is really only one thing that I desire, only if I keep track of what is important amidst the bustle, not allowing myself to get side-tracked (lo taturu) by what seems urgent and disturbing in the moment.

It is a little like meditiation. The basic instruction for meditators is simple enough – to focus on the breath. Oh, but the distractions –the thoughts and worries – that come our way when we try to maintain such focus. The goal then is a constant teshuvah, a constant feeling of return. Yes, we notice the movement away, how our minds climb like monkeys, but each time we return, we come back to that breath, we are reminded that there is a center. We are grounded and focused, and come what may, we have the power to return.

I notice my own mind’s insanities, its moods and preoccupations. We are slaves to these, and through them create our own suffering. But to break through it all, to feel that yes, there is a Oneness behind it all, that we are held in love by that One --- to be able to constantly return to this grounding notion, that is teshuvah (and that is freedom). Ahat sha’alti -- I really only want one thing, and come what may, I will return to that one thing with all my heart and with all my soul.

Friday, August 29, 2014

On Ending Kaddish

Another end. No longer will there be something that I do every single day to mark this loss, something that I do every day to say – Abba, I still love you and am doing something to take care of you. It is hard. At each other stage --- shiva, shloshim, kaddish each morning – there was something ahead that marked it as still raw and new. Now there is just a huge never-ending span of nothingness and loss. No marks. I am set loose in my pain to confront the reality, the permanent reality that this person whom I loved and who loved me is not just not here right now, but never will be. It’s like the kid in preschool who doesn’t cry the first or second day at being left by his parents, but on the third week – that’s when it sinks in that this is not just some passing thing, but that every day on and on, he will be abandoned by his parents. It seems we are born to loss and separation.

I want to say good-bye again. But this time I have to figure out a way to make the good-bye an ongoing conversation, to stand in the doorway and talk a bit longer. I know there are other ways to continue the conversation – we carry our parents’ voices around in our heads. But something about Kaddish – the repetitiveness of it, the sanctity, the way it moves up and up, connecting two worlds. It places the conversation between me and my father into a religious realm, raises it up to include a third partner, Who is now, I pray, taking care of my father.

Good-bye, Abba. Stay with me even as you move upward. Smile at me and encourage me when I am down. Believe in me. Understand me. Love me. Help me feel our connection. Oh, stay with me. And to God, take care of him. Accept him in to Your warm embrace, and comfort him for the loss of his connection to us. You are the link between us. Stay with me. Le’alam, ule’almei almaya.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Post Tisha B'Av Reflections on Mourning and Connection

What do we mourn for on Tisha B’av? A story is told in the Talmud about Rabban Gamliel. Every night he would be awakened by a neighboring woman crying for her lost son. Rabban Gamliel, hearing her, would also cry, crying with her for her loss but also for the lost Temple. The story depicts how personal and communal tragedies become intertwined. They are not separate things, this mourning for one’s son (or father) and this mourning for the Temple, but all part of the basic human yearning for connection. That open wound inside is our opening to all open wounds.

What do we mourn for on Tisha B’av? We mourn for the loss of a once more intimate feeling of God’s presence in the world. We take time to feel the pain of distance and yearning for divine connection.

This week I had a few moments of self-consciously enjoying my summer time with my children. No great shakes – just sitting out on our porch eating a snack, walking around the pond as a storm brews, holding hands, but somehow, in the sweet fleeting moments of a waning summer, these moments felt peculiarly special and intense. This is all I want in life, I thought, to be together, to be connected, to be in loving relationship.

Maybe these personal relationships are an inkling of the possibility of our connection to God – a little taste of the soul’s capacity for outreach. Ahat sha’alti, we will soon say, come the month of Elul – One thing I desire in this world, and that is “that I sit in the house of God all the days of my life.” That’s the one thing we really yearn for, and to know it, is to understand the emptiness inside us, and not to confuse it with hunger for food or recognition, but simply the basic yearning of the human soul for divine connection.

As we move from Tisha B’av toward Rosh HaShanah, may our mourning and our yearning become returning, returning to that place of connection we have somehow always known.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Parashat Balak: Becoming Like a Donkey

Something happens to Balaam in the course of delivering blessings to the Israelites against his will. Something good happens inside him – though at first, he is resistant, merely a vehicle into which God places His words, by the end, Balaam has blossomed into a genuine seer and speaker, wholly embracing his role.

As my father, z”l, first pointed out to me, the Torah’s language changes through the course of Balaam’s various oracles. While in the first two, the Torah says Vayasem davar befiv, that God placed a word (or “thing”) in his mouth, by the third time, God’s spirit actually rests upon him, a term used for genuine prophecy.

Something breaks for Balaam in the course of the second oracle. Rashi comments on this Vayasem davar pefiv, “And He placed a thing in his mouth,” explaining that this time Balaam did not want to go back and report his blessing to King Balak. And so, Rashi says, God had to physically force him to do so by putting a “thing,” a bridle or a fish hook in his mouth, to lead him like an animal to the place God wanted.

What is the result of this experience of being treated like an animal – controlled and manipulated to do God’s will? Somehow, Balaam emerges from this experience to embrace his destiny. The Torah tells us next that he “saw” – something he was unable to do as well as his donkey earlier in the story – that it was good in God’s eyes to bless the people, and so did not go in search of magic, as before, but instead lifted up his eyes and again “saw” the people, at which point, “the spirit of God came upon him.”

The oracle which follows is arguably the most beautiful of the bunch, containing the phrase we adopted into our prayerbooks, mah tovu ohalekha. It is also the only one in which Balaam mentions himself as a positive player in his environment. In the first oracle, he refers to himself only as the one invited by King Balak, and in the second not at all. Here he begins: “Word of Balaam, son of Beor, word of the man whose eye is true. Word of him who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty.” Balaam seems to have hit his stride now, as oracle follow oracle after this one, as if some new spout of creativity has suddenly been opened inside him.

Balaam seems to me be an example of what can happen to a person when he stop resisting his destiny and begins to embrace whatever role God has set out for him. The process in Balaam’s case involves some letting go of ego. God has to remind him clearly who is in charge here, leading him like an animal, to do his job. Balaam needs to learn to be more like his faithful donkey.

The Hasidic masters talk often, in a positive way, of learning to do just this – negating one’s ego enough to be able to feel that God is one’s master, learning to follow and be obedient like an animal, while also not losing one’s human capacities for intelligence, creativity and freedom. Somehow, ironically, as in Balaam’s case, it is in the very negation of self that the self begins to blossom, to see and to speak of its own volition, through the freely acquired spirit of God. Balaam moves from God’s slave to God’s partner, but only by first going through some process of self-abnegation, of learning to understand himself as a vehicle or vessel for the divine. It is only when he can fully sublimate himself to God’s will that his own creativity and personhood can really grow and blossom through an attachment to God.

There is here, I think, the lost art of emptying oneself to be filled from above. Balaam began with a large ego, according to tradition, but ironically, this ego blocked him from greatness. Only once he could let it go in the manner of an animal simply following his master, only once he attached that self to its Source, only then could he be fully fulfilled.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Parashat Korah: On Taking and Elevating

For me, the bottom line with Korah is the very first word of the parsha: Vayikah. And he took. He had a taking kind of attitude. The story that follows is full of words like “a lot” and “a little,” – you got a lot; no, I got a little. The whole discussion reminds me of children’s squabbles over who got the bigger cookie. It’s a taking kind of attitude, an attitude that shows a selfishness of spirit – a primary concern with I, rather than you or any other, and also an emptiness of spirit – it is out of a feeling of inner emptiness that we look to take and fill ourselves up all the time.

This taking attitude is natural and ubiquitous. We are in some way born to worry about ourselves and to concern ourselves with filling up, taking and taking to ensure we have enough. The problem with such a taking attitude is that it leads downwards – Korah was swallowed up by the earth for good reason. A taking attitude degrades us, makes us not just act, but feel lowly and petty and constrained.

What is the Torah’s antidote to this kind of taking attitude? One answer is provided by the end of the parsha: the mitzvah of terumah, of gifts for the priests. This word terumah and its verb tarimu is in some ways the answer to vayikah in the beginning of the parsha. It’s not just that instead of taking, one should be giving, but also that instead of taking, one should be “raising up,” the literal meaning of tarimu. Giving a share to the priests is one way of “raising up” what you are taking from the world. Like saying a blessing before eating, it elevates the act, creating a sense of sanctity in the environment so that one is not pulled downward like Korah, but upward.

Because fundamentally, we are and always will be takers. We eat, we wear clothing, we constantly consume resources. We take from the world around us. If the whole purpose of such taking is merely the preservation and aggrandizement of some “me,” then it does lead us downward. Somehow, there has to be some higher purpose. We are taking, but we are taking in a way that elevates. There is a notion in Hasidic thought that by performing a mitzvah with a physical object, we somehow elevate that object itself, releasing the divine sparks inside it. Even if we don’t want to go that far in the mystical direction, there can be some feeling that we are making use of resources for the sake of something larger than ourselves. In the Pirke Avot chapter from last week, it says that one should try to do all of one’s actions leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. What would it mean to think, before evey act, even the most mundane, this, too is for the sake of heaven? Evey act would then be elevated.

If we could do this, if we could really feel that all of our actions were sanctified by their connection to some higher purpose, not only would we feel elevated, but I suspect that we would take less – consume fewer resources and also demand less of the things Korah was craving – honor and ego-building. I suspect we would take less because that empty space inside us would already be filled up. Having elevated our every activity, we would feel the blessedness and the sanctity of small amounts, of little things, and all of it would feel large and satisfying. We would not look to grab honor from outside, because we would feel already elevated from the inside.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Parashat Shelakh: How Not to Feel Like a Grasshopper

There are different ways of being small. There is insecurity and there is humility and they are not the same thing. The 10 spies who came back from their tour of Israel saying that we will not be able to conquer the land were insecure; “we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we were in their [the local giants’] eyes,” they say. Moshe, on the other hand, is humble, “the humblest man on the face of the earth,” it says right at the end of last week’s parsha, as if begging us to make exactly this contrast to the spies.

“We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we were in their eyes.” I think we know what this feels like, to look at those around us and feel that they are “giants” in comparison to us, to feel our own smallness, to be so intensely aware of all the ways we are lacking to the point that we are sure so it is in others’ eyes as well – that to them, too, we must seem inadequate.

Such is the human condition that we compare ourselves to others and sometimes, perhaps often, find ourselves lacking. How does one avoid such a state? By remembering always that we are a piece of God. And by remembering that as such, each one of us has a certain majesty, a grandeur of our own, our own way of shining forth, not like a grasshopper in contrast to giants, but like a human walking alongside other humans, each with her own way of lighting the road.

The difference between those 10 spies and Yehoshua, at least (Calev, too, but for different reasons), is that Yehoshua carried this knowledge with him – that is the gift that Moshe gave him before he left, changing his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua – the gift of carrying God’s name inside his own, of carrying the knowledge that God is a part of him with every step, bringing dignity and a long range perspective to the task at hand. Yes, at this particular moment I feel really small in relation to those who live here; I am new, a stranger; that’s what it feels like to not know the lay of the land – yes, that’s how I feel at this moment, but I can also keep with me the knowledge that God is a part of me, and this knowledge keeps me steady and balanced, keeps a person from falling into the “I am nothing but a grasshopper” trap.

The end of the parsha offers the same solution to the problem of the spies. It tells us that in order not to let our eyes “scout around” (taturu, like the spies), we should wear tzitzit in order to remember the God who made us and in order to remember the mitzvot – to remember that we have a divine job to do. There is no time to look around and make comparisons and feel like grasshoppers. We have a job to do on this earth, and it is a divine appointed job no matter how inadequate we feel to fulfill it.

That is Moshe’s humility. He doesn’t wallow in grasshopper-ness to the point of avoiding his mission. At a certain point, insecurity stops leaders like the spies from doing their job. If anything, Moshe’s humility fuels his mission, because it reminds him that its purpose is not his own greatness, but being part of something larger. His awareness of his own smallness – in relation to God, not other humans --- keeps him steady and on course in fulfilling his job.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Parashat Naso: On Blessings

In the book of Ruth, which we read on Shavu’ot, Bo’az greets his workers with the phrase, Hashem Imakhem, “May God be with you,” and they respond, Yevarekhekha Hashem, “May God bless you.” This exchange of blessings must have been the common form of greeting at the time, much like our greeting of Shalom, which in essence is also a blessing – I see you and acknowledge you and my connection to you by blessing you with “peace.”

Peace is also the final word of the priestly blessing in this week’s parsha. Here we learn that the priests are designated to be conduits for God’s blessings to the people. They bless the people with success, protection, God’s light and favor and Presence and with inner and outer peace.

The word barakh, bless, is related to the word berekh, “knee,” part of the reason we bend at the knee when we say barukh in the Amidah. Rami Alloni suggests that when we say barukh, we are, like the bending down of the knee, bringing down God’s blessings from above.

How does one bring down God’s blessings to earth? Learn from the priests. What strikes me about the priestly blessing is how outwardly focused it is.The suffix kha, standing for “you,” is repeated again and again: Yivaekhekha Hashem Veyishmerekha, “May God bless you and protect you.” Yisa Hashem Panav Eleikha Ve Yekhunekha. And so on. The priests are to stand up there and take the time and the energy to wish all these things upon others, upon “you.”

Before the priests pronounce this blessing upon the people they make their own brachah which concludes with the word be’ahavah, “with love.” The blessing must be pronounced by them out of a place of love for the people. In such a place of love and outward focus, God’s blessing may indeed be brought down to earth.

I wonder about our own capacity to bless others. Most of us are not in the habit of doing this regularly, as it seems that Boaz and his workers were – of looking out toward another and feeling inside and saying out loud: “I wish you well. I call down God’s blessing upon you with.” It means taking the full person into one’s heart and mind and offering up a prayer for that person’s well-being, thinking of his or her special struggles and praying, that yes, when I say “shalom,” I am calling down God’s blessing of inner peace upon this specific person before me. Veyasem lekha shalom. May He grant you peace.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Parashat Bemidbar: On Love and Counting

Sometimes in the face of all the numbers, all the daily details and words and arrangements, we lose sight of what underlies it all – the relationships, the connections, the love. That’s why I find it so beautiful that at the beginning of a parsha filled with such numbers and details (the census, the names of the leaders and the details of the encampment formation), Rashi makes the following comment: Mitokh Hibatan lefanav moneh otam kol sha’ah. “Out of God’s love for them, He counts them all the time.” Don’t forget, amidst all of life’s details, that what is really driving it all is simply love. That is what is at the core, at the core of the whole Torah, and at the core of our lives: love.

It is a love very much engaged and expressed in the concrete world we live in – expressed in the numbers and arrangements needed to be made to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people wandering through the desert. Love is not some abstract concept, a honeymoon, a romantic evening, but the daily care we offer one another – the sandwiches packed, the carpool arrangements made, the noses wiped.

So yes – it needs to be concrete and detail-oriented– like the numbers of this week’s parsha. But it also feels important every once in a while to remind ourselves of the backdrop of love, to stop amidst the hurry and harried dailiness to ask: What am I hurrying for? What am I working so hard for? To remind ourselves that these numbers are not an end in and of themselves, that our striving to produce and have outcomes and measurables, that ultimately these are not the point –they are all in service of relationships, of connections – to one another, to God, to the community, to the world.

I think of what Ms. Crom, the former first grade General Studies teacher at HACD, once did for one of my children. It was the first spelling test of the year, the first test in my child’s school career, and as it was going on, with all the children sitting and writing their words, he started to cry. I don’t remember exactly what precipitated it – he had forgotten to skip lines between words or not numbered them or his pencil broke. Some such thing that made him cry. What Ms. Crom did has stuck with me. She stopped the class, stopped the test, and said: We all need to stop and take care of this child right now.

That’s what I mean – remembering that the whole point of learning to spell in the first place is communication and connection, that human beings and human relations must stand at the center. The letters need to be learned, the people counted, but all in the context of love and connection.

Each week of the Omer is dedicated to a different one of the Kabbalistic sephirot, or aspects of God’s being in the world, and each week, there is an opportunity to focus on working on the corresponding trait in ourselves. This week, the sixth week, is the week of Yesod, “Foundation,” which is understood as connectedness or relationship. This is the week to think about how our connections lie at the core, are indeed the foundation for our lives and for the world, to notice and remind ourselves that all these numbers, all the details of our busy lives, are in service of a deep love and connectedness.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Parashat Behukotai: Fleeing When None Pursues

Amidst all the curses about hunger and pestilence and war in this week’s parsha, there are two that strike me this year. First, the curse of fear itself: “You will flee, while none pursues you,” the Torah says, and “the sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight.” What, according to the Torah, is the consequence of not following the right path? Paranaoia, a continual sense of fear and insecurity, disproportionate to the reality of the situation. You will live in fear, every sound making you think you are being attacked, running, constantly running, hiding, fleeing, never feeling safe enough to stop and live and enjoy.

The second curse that strikes me this year is: “You will eat and not feel satisfied.” This is the mindset of insatiable greed. I don’t think it is just talking about food. It’s the sense that a person sometimes has of restlessness and insatiability, that what we have, who we are, what we are doing, achieving, none of it is enough. Then when we attain that level we wanted, it is still not enough. Nothing is ever enough because we are in some crazy race of always looking to tomorrow to satisfy us. What we eat now, how we live now is not enough.

These two curses, I don’t think they are so foreign to us. Maybe we aren’t all paranoid, but many of us have a high level of fear underneath it all, a sense that there is always some lurking danger we need to be on the constant lookout for. And insatiability seems to be all-pervasive, that sense of reaching for more, for larger, for better – what we have, who we are right now is never enough.

The Torah includes these among the curses that befall those who do not follow the Torah. I wonder – what is there in the Torah that might help us out of such cursed mindsets?

I think the key may lie in one of the most beautiful of the blessings -- vehithalakhti betokhekhem, “I, God, will walk in your midst.” Somehow this Presence is an antidote to these curses – to feel God’s presence is, as the Psalmist constantly reminds us, to be aware that there is nothing to fear in flesh and blood, which passes quickly from this earth. The “awe” of God provides relief from any earthly fears, and also a sense of comforting accompaniment – “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” – note that it is only a “shadow,” perhaps a fear of death and darkness more than the thing itself – “I fear no evil for You are with me.” If we could carry that sense with us wherever we went, we would never flee when none pursues us, nor run from the sound of a driven leaf.

Second, there is a deep sense of satiety associated with God, perhaps the only real satiety there is. On Shabbat we say: sabenu mituvekha, “make us feel full or satisfied with Your goodness.” That is what fills us, a sense of God’s goodness. With that sense comes peace, and the realization that salvation, perfection, whatever it is we were waiting for, it is already all around us right now. There is no reaching. Life is good. The world God created is perfect as it is. We eat and are satisfied.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Parashat Behar: On Shmita and Letting it Go

“Let it go, let it go.” So goes the “Frozen” song. And in a way, that is the essence of shmita, the command to let the land lie fallow every seventh year, which begins our parsha. The word shmita, while not used in our parsha (but elsewhere in reference to this mitzvah – Exod 23:11 and Deut 15:2) means exactly that; it is from the root shamat, to let drop or fall. One is commanded to let it go – to let the land go, to let the debts of others go. Just let them go. Don’t pursue them; don’t work the land; don’t rush to bring in the crops. Whatever grows, grows, and you can take some of it into your house to eat, but not in an intense strategized way – in a relaxed, let it go, way. The rest of the crop is for the poor and the wild animals. Let them come. Let it go. Let nature take its course without interfering.

I feel like there is a strong message for us here which is very much against the grain of the way we normally live. We are, whether by nature or by culture, holder-oners. We hold on to our land, our homes, our work, our possessions, our money, our children, our time --- we hold on to all of these with great fierceness. There is a sense that if we let go, if we relax for a moment, the world might stop turning, our children might stop breathing, we might not have enough to eat. This holding on is a holding on of fear and insecurity. We don’t fully trust the rhythms of the world around us, that life will work out on its own, that our children will grow and learn no matter what we do. We have a great need to hold on tight, to control it all.

The shmita year, like Shabbat, comes to teach us that at least once in a while, it is a good practice to let go of all this control, to sit back and let nature take its course and to trust, and this I think is the key to it all, to trust that we will survive and be provided for. Of course, I am not advocating never working or striving in life. Those too have their place. But there is some balance that exists, some balance between striving and relaxing/trusting, and most of us rely far too heavily on the striving side.

This is one of the reasons I love the line from morning prayers: va’ani behasdekha batahti. “As for me, I trust in Your loving kindness.” I try to imagine what it would feel like to really trust in divine loving-kindness, to feel the relaxation and security that comes from such trust, how it makes me feel unworried and generous, how it allows me to let it go, let it all go – the anxious planning, the tight hold on life and all that is mine. Just trust and let it go.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Parashat Emor: On Pe'ah and our Sharp Corners

This week’s parsha repeats a mitzvah which was mentioned last week – the mitzvah of peah, of leaving the corners of one’s fields for the poor to harvest.

What happens when we cut our fields and avoid the corners? We turn sharp edges into rounded ones. To do the mitzvah of pe’ah is to cut off one’s corners, one’s sharp edges, in relation to those around us.

We all have this capacity for sharpness toward others; we judge, we criticize, we are self-righteous, we lash out, we think, “that person deliberately caused me trouble,” or “I would never act like that person” or “There he goes again.”

The idea of pe’ah is to soften these sharp edges. Yes, I know that’s not the literal meaning of the mitzvah. Literally, we’re talking about generosity toward the poor, the capacity to give what is ours to others. But what is generosity if not a rounded heart – one without sharp edges that wonder – why can’t he just take care of himself for a change? Why do I always have to help her? Generosity involves suspension of judgment and harshness, an assumption of the opposite emotions– compassion, sympathy, kindness, the feelings that lead to giving of oneself to others.

Pirke Avot, which we are reading during this season, says: Heve dan et kol adam lekaf zekhut. Give others the benefit of the doubt in your judgment. Often, it turns out we are wrong in how we judge others; they have good reasons for doing what they’re doing, or it hasn’t happened in exactly the way we thought. We generally have very little information before we pass judgment on others.

But even if we are not wrong, even if we are very much in the right (and we shouldn’t be too sure we are), it is still worthwhile to get rid of those sharp edges. Why? Because we are not so perfect ourselves. There is a rabbinic tradition that God holds us to the same standards that we hold others to. That is, if we judge others harshly, He judges us harshly, too. If we are soft and compassionate, assuming the best of others, so does He of us. In our judgments, in other words, we create the kind of climate of judgment that we ourselves inhabit. Will it be one of sharp edges or soft ones?

There is a Hasidic story about Rabbi Moshe Leib, who, one night in the middle of the night, heard a knock at the door. It turned out to be a drunken peasant asking to be let in. His first reaction was great anger: What insolence! Who does he think he is, knocking on my door at this hour? What business does he have coming to my house? But then, he said quietly to himself: “And what business has he in God’s world? But if God gets along with him, can I reject him?” I often think of this story when judgment comes up for me, and I say to myself a slightly different version of this rebbe’ self-admonishment: “And what business do I have in God’s world either? If God can accept me with all my flaws, then surely I can accept this other person.”

To approach others with rounded edges is to approach them with a soft, accepting and generous heart. This is the season for the softening of our hearts, as we move away from the harshness of the Passover matzah toward to softness of the shtei halehem, the bread sacrifice of Shavu’ot, away from the harshness of winter toward the softness of the spring air.

Yom HaShoah Talk Delivered at CBAJ, Albany: On the Piaseczner Rebbe

My grandfather, Shimon Tuvia Anisfeld, z’l, was shot in the Tarnow ghetto when caught studying Talmud. He was one of many who continued to study religious texts and practice Judaism amidst the harshest of conditions. This seems strange. What kind of a response is Talmud study to genocide and slave labor? What does it mean to be involved in such a religious activity in the face of Nazi persecution?

I want to quote from Hillel Seidman’s Warsaw Ghetto Diary, as he paints a picture of just such Talmud study in a slave labor shoe factory in the Warsaw ghetto in late 1942. This is what Seidman reports:

Now I am in Schultz’s factory; I have come at the time when people are both hammering in nails and reciting Hoshanot prayers. Here are gathered, thanks to one of the directors Mr. Avraham Handel, the elite of the Orthodox community: Hasidic masters, rabbis, scholars, religious community organizers . . .Sitting beside the anvil for shoe repairing . . . is the Koziglover Rav. . . He is sitting here, but his spirit is sailing in other worlds. He continues his studies from memory, without interruption, his lips moving constantly. From time to time he addresses a word to the Piaseczner Rebbe, . . . who is sitting opposite him, and a subdued discussion on a Torah topic ensues. Talmudic and rabbinic quotations fly back and forth; soon there appear on the anvil, -- or, to be precise, on the minds and lips of these brilliant scholars – the words of Maimonides and Ravad, the author of the Tur, Rama, earlier and later authorities. The atmosphere of the factory is filled with the opinions of eminent scholars, so who cares about the S.S, the German overseers, the hunger, suffering, persecution and fear of death? They are really sailing in the upper worlds; they’re not sitting in a factory on Nowolipie 46, but rather in the Hall of the Sanhedrin. (Taken from Nehemiah Polen, The Holy Fire, pp. 148-149)

The picture painted here is one of extraordinary transcendence. Surrounded by fear, hate, hunger and death, these religious leaders have the inner strength to transport themselves to somewhere else. They cannot be dominated; their spirit is free, as they engage in a discourse that spans thousands of years. They have neither really escaped nor directly defeated the machinations o f the Nazis, but they have transcended them and the hateful world they created. We normally talk about the two options of victimhood and armed resistance. By contrast, these rabbinic leaders demonstrated a kind of religious heroism and spiritual resistance.

Among those mentioned in the scene above is the Piasetzner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, also known as the Warsaw ghetto rebbe. His writings from the war, a collection of drashot or homilies known as the Esh Kodesh, the Holy Fire, were delivered and written during his years in the Warsaw ghetto, were buried, and later discovered by a construction worker digging in the site of the former Warsaw ghetto some years after the war. The Rebbe was later shot and died in the Trawniki labor camp.

The Piaseczner Rebbe was already a figure of great renown in the world of Polish Hasidism before the war, known for his innovations in education and beloved for his gentleness and dignity.

At the start of the war, he was offered a chance to escape Poland, but refused, clear that his role was to accompany his Hasidim through whatever transpired. During those terrible years, he provided material and spiritual aid to many, often at great personal risk to himself. In his drashot, he tries to offer some encouragement and solace to his followers, and to lend them strength to continue religious life and not lose faith.

I want to give you a small taste of his writing. At one point he himself addresses a version of our question: He worries that being occupied with Torah at a time of such horrific events is wrong and callous:

There are times when the individual is astonished at himself. He thinks: Am I not broken? Am I not always on the verge of tears – and indeed, I do weep from time to time! How then can I study Torah? How can I find strength to think creatively in Torah and Hasidism? At times the person torments himself by thinking: Can it be anything but inner callousness that I am able to pull myself together and study despite my troubles and those of Israel, which are so numerous?

He does not directly answer this question or sense of doubt, but in the passage that follows this one He finds comfort simply in God’s Presence. He discovers that God, too, is weeping, though His weeping is hidden, and that if he can break through and become intimate with God, he, the Rebbe can cry together with God and be comforted. This is how he puts it:
God, blessed be he, is to be found in His inner chambers weeping, so that one who pushes in and comes close to Him by means of studying Torah, weeps together with God, and studies Torah with him. Just this makes the difference: the weeping, the pain which a person undergoes by himself, alone, may have the effect of breaking him, of bringing him down, so that he is incapable of doing anything. But the weeping which the person does together with God – that strengthens him. He weeps – and is strengthened; he is broken – but finds courage to study and teach.
(Parashat HaHodesh, 1942, translation from Nehemiah Polen, The Holy Fire)

Just this makes the difference, he says: not crying alone, but crying together with God. The situation hasn’t changed but somehow now he feels accompanied in his suffering and this Divine company makes all the difference.

Here we get an inkling of the inner spark, the divine connection that kept the Rebbe going, that gave him the strength to stay with his followers and accompany them with love and comfort through the horrors of slave labor and extermination.

Indeed, there is a deep connection between what he, the Rebbe, says he experiences from God, and what he offers his own Hasidim, his followers – a sense of accompaniment, of Presence in their suffering. This was precisely the reason he did not accept the offer of escape at the start of the war.

And again, during his last days in the Trawniki labor camp, there were numerous attempts made by the Jewish underground to rescue him and a number of other notables. Then, too, he refused. Apparently, he and some 20 people – artists, physicians and communal figures – had gotten together and made a pact that not one of them would leave the camp without the others.

I want to close again with his words:

Just this makes the difference: the weeping, the pain which a person undergoes by himself, alone, may have the effect of breaking him, of bringing him down, so that he is incapable of doing anything. But the weeping which the person does together with God – that strengthens him. He weeps – and is strengthened; he is broken – but finds courage to study and teach.

Zechuto yagen aleinu. May his merit act as a shield for us.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Parashat Kedoshim: Some Thoughts on Love

VeAhavta le’Re’akha Kamokha -- one should love one’s fellow as oneself. This phrase is famously said by Rabbi Akiva to be klal gadol baTorah, a great, perhaps the greatest, principle of the entire Torah. Here we are in the middle of the middle book of the Torah, and what we find at its center is love.

What is this love? The only narrative example in which we hear of such a love for another “as oneself” is the love of Jonathan for David (I Samuel 17 and following). Yonatan is the son of King Saul. Theoretically, it is Yonatan who should be the next king, but young David has been secretly anointed by the prophet at the command of God. David comes on the scene, strong and popular, vanquishing the giant Goliat as well as many other enemies of Israel, to the great adoration of the people. Yonatan, watching all this, strangely enough does not feel threatened as his father does, but welcomes David, helping him and loving him, and symbolically even giving him his own clothes and sword.

What is this love? It is a love that occurs precisely in the space where jealousy could have, and by all rights, should have, sprouted. David was essentially stealing what Yonatan had every right to expect to be his. He should not have rejoiced at David’s success, but been driven mad by it, as was his father Saul. Indeed, every time David had any success, Saul is said to be overcome by a ruah ra’ah, “a bad spirit.” This is the spirit of jealousy that eats us alive from the inside. Yonatan, by contrast, seems to evade such evil temper by dint of his simple, strong affection for David. More than anything, the problem with jealousy, and on the other side, the benefit of love, is how they affects us, the one making us feel evil-tempered, and the other making us feel happy and generous. Choosing love is in this way a matter of self-interest. It feels better to be loving.

But of course, one cannot really control emotions. Or so we argue. But perhaps, as Rav Naftali Hertz Vizel of the Biur suggests (as cited in Nehama Leibowitz’s commentary), the Torah in this command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is hinting at a way of thinking that may help one do just that. The key is the word kamokha, “like you.” Learn to think of others, even would-be enemies, as being “like you,” made in the image of God, and therefore, like you, worthy of respect and affection. I would add to this sense of “like you” another dimension: Know that others are like you in their suffering, their insecurities, their fears and their anxieties. Don’t just look at the exterior and think – that person is perfect, has no problems, and therefore is not in need of either my compassion or my love. This removes them from the “like you” human category and therefore makes it easy to be jealous and hard to love them. Remember that we are all human, we all have our troubles, we all suffer in some way, remember these things and the kindness, the open-heartedness of a Jonathan-like love will naturally emerge.

Such love is a mind-set, a spiritual/emotional habit, a practice we can indeed practice and become better at. It is indeed the core of the Torah because it is the root of our ability to move out of ourselves, both in relation to God and to others, the root of our ability to transcend the natural tight frame of the ego, and feel the breadth of our connection to others.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Pesach and Inclusiveness

Who is the Seder for?

Again and again, the Haggadah uses the root kol, “everyone.” Kol dikhfin, “everyone who is hungry,” kulanu mesubin, “tonight we all recline,” “even if we are all wise,” “all who speak much about the Exodus are praiseworthy,” “in every generation,” . . .

It seems that above all, the Haggadah aims at inclusiveness. Even the rasha, the “wicked”child, who is seemingly rejected, is nonetheless in the Haggadah, and therefore every year, appears again at our Seder.

Indeed the 4 children epitomize the aim of the Haggadah – to reach each child, and each adult as they are. Each one has different needs and therefore gets a different response – an early prorotype of differentiated instruction!

Perhaps that is why the Haggadah includes such a plethora of different types of activities – concrete symbols to eat and look at, songs to sing, intellectual discussions and math excercises (check out the argument over how many plagues there were in Egypt and at the Sea!), and ritualized actions like the breaking of the matzah and the pouring out of some wine for the plagues. Perhaps that also explains the repeated attempts to both complicate and simplify the story – on the one hand, to elaborate midrashically using verses from many sources, and on the other hand, to summarize the plagues into three easy words, the mneumonic, Destzakh adash be’ahab and Rabban Gamliel’s attempt to encapsulate the whole meaning of the Seder in 3 simple symbols.

All of these are attempts at reaching different audiences, or sometimes, different parts of ourselves, through different media and teaching methods. There is an acknowledgement here that this ceremony is for “everyone.”

This “everyone” trait means that the Seder is not always an easy affair. It often brings together people of varying religious, tempermental and educational proclivities, and asks them to have an experience of redemption together. I find myself worrying ahead of time and during the Seder about these differences and how everyone will be accommodated. Perhaps it would be easier to have a Seder alone, but the message of the Seder is that true redemption is only achieved together. Instead of feeling the differences to be a source of stress, this year I hope to feel that the differences are a source of strength and richness, precisely what makes our joint tapestry durable, and precisely what helps us to achieve redemption. It is only when we see clearly that we are not alone, but a small piece of something larger, with each one playing her part, that we can move out of ourselves to a place of communal redemption. Happy Passover to all!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Parashat Shemini: On the Balance of Passion and Devotion

In every close relationship, there is some balance between passion and devotion, between the spark of love and the daily acts of loyalty and caretaking. It is no different with God. There are the peak moments of connection and spirituality, the highs of Yom Kippur or of a particularly good moment of prayer or song -- these are indeed essential to keeping the flame alive. But there is also the daily devotion of simply being there, the myriad commandments one does even if one is not feeling so excited at that moment.

Nadav and Avihu seem to have gone to the extreme in the passion department. Every year at this parsha we try to understand why they were swallowed up in flames at the consecration of the Tabernacle, upon bringing to God an incense offering with a “strange fire” , “which they were not commanded to bring.” Many are the interpretations of what went wrong, and many also include tales of what went right – this was a sin of passion, done out of love for God and great joy at the consecration of the Tabernacle. These two sons of Aharon were on a spiritual high, say the rabbis, perhaps even a higher level than Moshe and Aharon, and it was precisely because of this spiritual high (some say brought on by alcohol, a symbol of the loss of control to passion) that they went forward and brought this offering.

But passion was only part of what was needed at this particular moment. The people standing around watching had already witnessed God’s Presence descend upon the Tabernacle, had fallen on their faces in ecstasy at the sight of the divine flame consuming the sacrifices. Nadav and Avihu went one step further in this direction of passion, and it turns out that one step further is a complete consumption by God of humanity. What was needed at that particular moment was not passion, but a sense of boundaries, and a sense of the security of “commandedness.” The people needed to know that to be close to God is not only about attaining spiritual highs (and perhaps for some not at all about that, at least not to the level that Nadav and Avihu were capable), but simply about being a loyal, devoted servant of God – keeping His commandments.

Personally, I find there is some relief in this. As much as we search after those spiritual highs, that sense of peak connection to God, and I still think we should, we cannot always attain them. And to feel empty and disappointed in those numerous moments when we are left down on the ground, decidedly uninspired, well – what then? But no –it is not all about highs. The bread and butter of one’s relationship with God, like one’s relationship with one’s spouse and children, is daily devotion, a sense of steadfastness – standing there through thick and thin, through the dry days and the high days and the low days, but still being there to make the lunches and say the brachot (blessings). It is a relief that sometimes all God wants of me is simply to show up, to be my small uninspired self in His presence, to show my devotion through emptiness and humility as well as through passion and intense emotion.

It’s what I think of as the “daily minyan attitude” toward religious practice. Many a morning have I wondered: What are we really accomplishing here – how can I/we say all these words with any sense of meaning? Is anyone really getting inspired/carried away here? But then I look around at the people who come day in, day out, early in the morning, many 3 times a day, and am inspired not by their passion, but simply by their steadfastness. What they are offering up to God is a different sacrifice than Nadav and Avihu’s burst of love, aflame with a wild fire. It is a daily humble expression of connection and loyalty.

Such an approach is also a tremendous relief to a mourner. I ofen worry: Did I think of my father today? Am I remembering him enough? Am I feeling enough sadness? Did I have that peak sense of overwhelming loss? Those feelings do come, and they are an important part of the grieving process. But saying Kaddish is not always that – often, it is simply an act of devotion. Today I did something to remember my father, to mark his loss, and to mark, at least for myself, my continuing devotion to him.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Parashat Zachor and Purim: The Attack of the Randomness View

This Shabbat we read Parashat Zachor, the command to remember the Amalekite attack on the Israelites in the desert. Who is this Amalek who comes to attack us when we are ayef ve’yage’a, tired and worn out? Well – who visits you at night after a long day, when you are tired – when you have worked hard for a long time and see only more work ahead of you and no progress in sight?

Who visits us when we are tired? That Amalek feeling—the feeling that all is pointless, that the world has no order and no purpose. The Torah says of Amalek asher karkha baderekh, “who happened upon you on the journey.” Karkha, from the same root as mikreh, “happenstance,” has the implication of randomness. The Amalek feeling attacks our sense of purpose in the world, our sense that the world is basically good, that the world has an order and a Ruler and a plan, that our lives have some meaning and some purpose, that we are part of some divine order of things. No, no, says the Amalke feeling – it is all just random. You live and you die, and it doesn’t matter how you act in between – there is no order and no meaning.

Haman, Purim’s Amalek representative, carries the same message with his lots, the purim for which the holiday was named. Casting lots symbolizes an attitude toward life that sees all as random.

The gift of Torah and faith is the power to fight this dark, empty purposeless feeling. Commenting on the first word of last week’s parsha, Vayikra, Rashi makes a distinction between the call to Moshe, vayikra (with an alef), and the call to Balaam (in Numbers), vayikar (without an alef). The first comes from the root to call, while the second comes from the same root as the Amalekite happenstance, mikreh. The call to Moshe is done in the language of love, lashon hibah, says Rashi, while the call to Balaam is done in the language of randomness, lashon arai.

It comes down to a choice: On the one side is the reality we see when we are tired --the Amalekite way, that all is random, without purpose. And on the other side is the call of love. Can we hear that call, begin to feel that yes, we are loved, and yes, we are “called” by some force larger than ourselves to some purpose on this earth?

Mordecai, even in his darkest moments, is sure there is a plan – “salvation will come from somewhere else” – he says to Esther – but it will surely come. And he is also sure that there is meaning to our lives and a role and a purpose to fulfill, should we choose to hear the calling: “Who knows if it was for just such a moment that you have attained to this royal station, Esther?” It isn’t random --- it has meaning. The only question is whether we can hear, in our lives, the call of love that Esther and Moshe heard.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Parashat Vayikra: On Prayer, Sacrifice, and Largeness

We talk a lot about largeness in tefillah (prayer). Gadol Hashem umehulal me’od; ki kel gadol; yitgadal yitkadash. They all use the word gadol, which literally means “large,” although most often is understood to mean something like “great.”

But lately it is the sense of largeness that I lean toward. Praying is an act of expanding the perspective, of seeing that one is part of a large infinite cosmos and a large infinite divine being. Praying is like becoming a bird for one small section of time – flying high, seeing the earth and oneself from the perspective of 2,000 feet – having a sense of the whole expanse and of one’s part in it. I am a wave in a large ocean, a blade of grass in a never-ending field.

Close experience of death brings one to this perspective in a paradoxical way. Suddenly the truth of each of our very limited lives on this earth stands out starkly before us – we are tiny specks and then we disappear. And yet, it also speaks to a much much larger perspective – the dead become not smaller, but larger, because they become part of something infinite – the truth of all of our connections to the infinite, to the largeness of the divine seems suddenly impossible to refute. Perhaps that is why the first word of the kaddish is yitgadal – May His name be great or large – meaning – May we remember to have this sense of His largeness and of our own deceased’s part in that largeness.

Something similar is going on in the parsha with all of these sacrifices. What happens to an animal or flour offering is the truth of what happens to all flesh – it rises up to meet its Maker. In disappearing into smoke it becomes a part of-- is given over to-- something non-tangible, but larger, infinite in scale.

Perhaps that is why prayer is the parallel to these sacred offerings. They both function to elevate us – to help us feel what it is like to fly from above, to become a wisp of smoke floating upward, to lose ourselves in the largeness of the divine.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Parashat Pekudei: O Prosper the Work of Our Hands!

What accounts for success? Certainly much of it is in our control. The Okympic athletes didn’t get to where they are without a great deal of human effort.

And yet, at the same time, there is also an element of grace, of blessing from above. Sometimes when I am writing or speaking, I feel inspired, transported, lifted into some other realm. The work, the effort, is always there, but sometimes there is an added element of blessing, and sometimes there isn’t.

This parsha concludes the work of the building of the Mishkan. The people have given their all, followed instructions precisely and put in tremendous effort. What happens now? Moshe looks at their work and blesses them. According to Rashi, he says: “May it be His will that the divine Presence dwell in the work of your hands.”

These words were recorded forever in a slightly different from in one of the psalms attributed to Moshe (which we say on Shabbat mornings): Veyehi No’am Hashem Elokeinu Aleinu, U’Ma’aseh Yadeinu Konnenah Aleinu U’Maaseh Yadeinu Konenehu -- “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17). According to the midrash, these words were originally spoken by Moshe at the conclusion of the building of the Tabernacle. You have done the work; now let us pray for the blessing of God on your work – o prosper the work of your hands!

There is an acknowledgement here that something, at least, is out of our control. We can build the building but the spirit must come from above. And there are times of extreme frustration where the spriit, the blessing, does not come, and our work seems for naught. As we say in the morning Uva Letzion prayer, lema’an lo niga larik velo neled labehalah --“ so that we do not toil for nothing and produce for futility.” My son expresses this often in playing the trumpet – he practices and practices and some days he can play beautifully and others, he can barely get a sound out, and he feels that it is not in his control.

How can a person live in such a world, where this is this risk of toiling for naught? And how could we live in a world in which success was entirely in our control? The knowledge that, in addition to human effort, blessing comes from above, is essential . Why was Moshe able to bring down blessing from above? Because of his humility. He had no doubt about his role – he was a keli, a vessel, for divine blessing. That very acknowledgment, the knowledge that blessing comes from above, is actually what draws it down. We can only receive a gift if we are not too full to receive it. A cup full of water cannot receive more water. The knowledge of our limitations opens us to being blessed.

May the work of all of our hands prosper, O Lord, our God, may the work of our hands prosper!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Parashat Vayakhel: On Work and Presence

Lately I have the feeling that the world is zooming by on an acela train, and I am running alongside huffing, trying desperately to keep up.

But there is no way . There is always more to do than can be done. And I don’t really want to spend my life running. The scenery is going by way too quickly. Every once in a while, as I am thinking about something I need to get done, I pause suddenly, and notice that my youngest son is saying something to me. I look down at him, and his big beautiful brown trusting eyes are looking up at me, just waiting for me to look at him, to look him in the eye, to hear him and be present.

How does one manage to “get thngs done” in the world and yet also achieve some level of presence? We are in the midst of the parshiyyot detailing the great human “work” of the Torah – the creation of a mishkan, a dwelling place for God on earth. It takes 2 parshiyyot to describe its instructions and 2 to describe its actualization. This project is a lot of work. Indeed, the work involved here is considered the definition of creative work, melakhah, in the Torah, the very actions that are prohibited on Shabbat.

Two things strike me about the Torah’s “work.” First, it is entirely about “Presence.” The whole point of every piece of this work is to bring down God’s presence to earth. I’m not sure how one achieves such presence in the actual weaving and carpentry of the work, but surely this goal of presence must have seeped into the way the work was approached, a sense of sacredness surrounding each act in itself so that there is no sense of rushing on to keep on schedule.

Second, the Torah emphasizes in this parsha and in the last that all this Mishkan work stops on Shabbat. Even a person involved in this most sacred work of building God’s palace is obligated to refrain from such work on Shabbat. No work is so important that it cannot be stopped, because work/production is not the point. The point is Presence, and refraining from work on one day makes it clear that Presence is the goal the rest of the week.. The sacred pause on Shabbat -- like my son's searching eyes -- stops us in our tracks for a moment in order to remind us to be present, then, and always.

I’m still not sure how this works on a practical level. How do we infuse our work with a sense of Presence? So much of what we do involves preparations. Somehow even these preparations must be done with a sense of Presence, of the sacredness of this moment, and this individual activity.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh: Carrying Others on our Hearts

What does it mean to be a leader? There is much honor accorded to Aharon and his sons, the kohanim (priests) in this week’s parsha. They receive special clothing made lekavod uletiferet, “for honor and for glory,” and Aharon wears a ribbon around his head with a marker that he is kodesh lashem, “holy to God.”

Is this what it means to be a leader – to receive kavod, honor and respect in the community, to be marked as an elite, as special to God?

There is another piece of leadership described in this week’s parsha which perhaps explains all this honor. Aharon is to wear on his shoulders as well as al libo, “on his heart,” precious stones bearing the names of all of the tribes of Israel. He carries the weight of the nation on his shoulders, their concerns in his heart. Whatever honor is accorded to him is accorded to him purely as their messenger, the mediator between God and the people. His role is to remember each one, to keep them in mind and heart, so that God, too, will remember them, lizikaron lifnei Hashem.

True kedushah, holiness, and true kavod, honor, comes from the ability to carry others around inside us, to keep their problems in mind, to remember them and think of what they might be feeling or needing. I was thinking about this in minyan one morning as we recited the names of the sick. We elevate ourselves through our concern for others; we become more than ourselves, break down the prison of our separateness, and touch something larger. Including in our prayers the names of the individual sick ones we know is a practical way of remembering theit troubles each day, of carrying them on our shoulders and in our hearts like Aharon did.

Aharon was ideally suited to this task, as he was the ultimate ferginer. A ferginer is someone who is happy at the success of others. After Moshe was appointed to be the leader and savior of the people, Aharon approached him, and God told Moshe that Aharon would see him and “be happy in his heart, “ ve’samach belibo. For a brother to rejoice at his younger brother’s greater successes is remarkable. Aharon was a person who knew how to feel for other people – in this case, he felt joy at Moshe’s success. In the Mishkan he was asked to take on both the joys and the sorrows of the entire Israelite people, to carry them in his heart as he had carried Moshe, too, in his heart, with a sense of generosity and openness that goes beyond the self.

This ability to carry others in our hearts is what it means to be holy, what it means to have honor, and also ultimately what it means to be a leader.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Parashat Terumah: Where God Dwells

This week’s parsha details the creation of a mishkan, a holy space for God to dwell on this earth. Ve’asu li mikdash veshahanti betokham. They should make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst. How can we draw down God’s Presence to this earth?

In the Mishkan God’s voice would come from between the two cherubs which stand atop the aron, the ark. These cherubs are said to have had the faces of children and to stand facing one another, with their wings stretched out, sokhekhim bekanfeihem, creating a shelter (from the same word as sukkah ) with their wings over the cover of the ark.

Where does God dwell? He dwells in the places where we can turn to each other with the innocence and pure-heartedness of children, really deeply turn to each other, like a child before she is covered over by social concerns and self-consciousness. See each other in this deep, pure, whole-hearted way and create together a space of shelter, a container of love.

God dwells in the containers of love that we create together. God is both the container, the one who holds us in love and shelter – who is Himself pores sukat shalom alenu, “spreading a sukkah of peace over us” – and also the one who is held by our container, by our love. He enters into the spaces where we create such containers, and Himself provides such a container, such a feeling of protection and love, for us to dwell in.

Where are these spaces in life? They are all around us, though we are often too busy to notice them or feel them. All these accomplishments, things we rush around to produce and finish, that’s all fine. The mishkan does need to be built. Ultimately, though, where is God? In the moments that we take to turn toward one another. Pause for a moment in your interactions with people, just pause and feel their presence, feel your connection to them, turn deeply toward them and feel the holiness of the space that is created, how, in holding one another, you create a container for God’s Presence, create a space to feel the One that holds us all.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Parashat Mishpatim: The Blue That Joins Us

“Under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity” (24:10). This description of a vision of God appears in this week’s parsha, alongside its many laws.

“A pavement of sapphire” in Hebrew reads, livnat hasapir. Rashi, quoting the midrash, says that this levaynah, “pavement” or “brick,” was at God’s feet from the time of the Israelites’ bondage, to remind God of their suffering with “bricks,” levanim (the same word). And the bright pure light of the sky, ke’etzem hashamayim letohar, says Rashi, is the light and happiness that God experienced after their redemption.

He suffered with us and He celebrates with us. We are on His mind, not alone, either in happiness or in distress, but embraced by a loving Presence that keeps us constantly present, in mind.

On the flip side, the image of the blue sapphire, the color of the sky, is also the reason for the tekhelet in our tzitzit. A single thread of blue among the white (although most no longer have the tekhelet), it is meant to remind us of the sky and the blue sapphire, and therefore of God Himself. He reminds himself of us, and we remind ourselves of Him (and of our presence in His mind).

Like parents who keep pictures of their children (and grandchildren!) around them, we have a little blue string to constantly remind ourselves of God, and God has a blue brick to remind Himself of us. God and us, in suffering and in greatness, reaching for one another, always keeping the other in mind.

Parashat Mishpatim: On Suffering and Compassion

Aside from the question of why suffering happens, there is the question of what to do with it, what to do in the throes of a painful situation or feeling. One of the most satisfying answers I have come across is to take the opportunity to learn compassion for other who suffer in just this way.

Embarrassment, anxiety, fear, shame, physical pain, grief – there is the emotion and then there is the opportunity for an “aha” moment – so that’s what it feels like to be made fun of, excluded, reprimanded, publicly humiliated, to experience professional failure . . . Instead of fighting the feeling, one can breathe it in and think about all the people that have and are suffering similarly across time and space. There is a world of suffering that our experience opens up to us, allows us to understand and relate to.

Egypt happened. The people of Israel suffered greatly. And out of this suffering comes just this type of compassion. “Do not oppress the stranger for you yourself were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our oppression becomes an opportunity for personal growth, for learning to be compassionate. I don’t wish exclusion on anyone, but until we have personally felt excluded in some situation, it is hard to know how the “other” feels in our home situation.

There are other options. Suffering can make us bitter and angry, hard and closed inside, ready to lash out at others, to hurt them as we ourselves feel hurt. We often do this in small ways and large. But the Torah wisely reminds us not to become like the Egyptians in their hardness and harshness, but to use suffering as a tool to open our heart to the pain of others.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Parashat Yitro

Vayihad Yitro. Yitro, Moshe’s Midianite father-in-law, was happy, had hedvah, joy, over the news of God’s salvation of the Israelites. Let us stop and reflect on this moment and this joy – this was a ferginin (a Yiddish term) joy, the joy of a person capable of being happy for someone else’s good fortune. Good for you that you were saved, says Yitro – I am so happy for you!

Our parsha -- which contains the Mount Sinai experience and the 10 commandments, arguably the most momentous event in the Torah -- begins here, with Yitro’s visit and Yitro’s ferginin joy. Why? Because this is the essence of the Torah. As Rabbi Akiva says: To love a fellow human as one loves oneself, to want what is good for them, to yearn for and celebrate that other person’s success as one does one’s own, that is the greatest principle of the Torah.

Yitro’s vayihad stands on the one side of the 10 commandments, and on the other side, at the very end of the commandments, stands another word, the same but with one added Hebrew letter: lo tahmod, Do not covet your fellow’s wife, your fellow’s house – do not wish that their happiness, their success, was not theirs, but yours.

These are the two poles – jealousy is what arises when we don’t learn to be ferginin , to be joyful for others. These are the two poles, and standing between them, right in the middle, is the solution – the way to learn to lean toward one pole and not the other -- the first of the commandments: Anokhi Hashem Elokekha. I am the Lord your God. If there is one God above, He cares about all of us. Like a parent who wants what is best for each of her children, and wants them all to feel that they are on the same team, and to work together for one another’s benefit, and rejoice at each others’ successes, so is God above the parent of us all, hoping we can see beyond the confines of “me” and feel our fellowship with one another.

When you take out the mem (and take out the “me”) in hamad, the word for coveting, you end up with had, two letters that also remind us of ehad, “one”. The point is to get beyond the sense of boundaries, of “me” vs “you,” of “us” vs “them.” It’s all one, God is one, we are all one.

How beautiful that we learn this lesson from Yitro, a non-Israelite, who, with his joy for our salvation, makes it clear that the world is one, and that Torah is everywhere and in everyone.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Parashat Beshallah: Not Running From the Fear

You’re running, you’re running, as fast as you can. You hear them behind you, chasing you. You know you can’t escape, but you just keep running, fleeing. Have you ever had such a dream? Or such a feeling?

Fear. The Israelites might have been able to physically leave Egypt, but could they leave their fears behind, or would their fears chase them forever, like the Egyptians in this parsha?

Fears chase us, surround us, box us in, like the Israelites standing between the Sea and the Egyptians, trapped. The only escape is to stop fleeing, to turn around, to see those fears up close and then watch them drown in the Sea of faith.

Running doesn’t help. The exodus story could not have ended last week because psychologically the Israelites would always be running away, and in running away, those Egyptians would still be their masters.

Freedom only comes with the dissolution of fear. Why was this moment at the Sea so intense as to be cause for song? It was the first taste of the possibility of life without fear – a breaking down of barriers and obstacles that bursts forth in song, great shouts of song that know no limit, because it is fear that sets the limits.

But how to get to that point? The midrash says that even a maidservant at the Sea saw something that great prophets have never seen . She saw, she understood, she believed with utter certainty (at least for that moment) that there was something greater than her fears, greater than those tyrannical Egyptians with all their iron chariots --- God shall live forever! proclaimed the Israelites in their song. What fear can stand up to this statement, to this sense of the eternity, of the ultimate utter supremacy of the divine?

My grandfather was killed by Nazi soldiers, and my father’s childhood destroyed by them. The fear of them lives on in my psyche, chasing me and stopping me from really being free, from really learning to sing. It is not enough to survive. One must also turn around and look squarely at those fears and watch them drown in a Sea of faith, faith that there is something good that is larger and more eternal. May we find the strength to see, to believe and to sing.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Parashat Bo: Different Kinds of Heaviness

What is the difference between being “heavy or hard of heart,” kevad lev, as Pharaoh is, and being “heavy of mouth or tongue,” kevad peh vekevad lashon, as Moshe is? Both heavy, one in a harmful way, one in a successful way – what’s the difference?

My son Medad says that the heart has to do with what is inside, whereas the mouth or tongue represents one’s presentation to the world. If one’s presentation to the world is clumsy and awkward, that is not a problem, as long as one’s heart is light and open.

Maybe it isn’t just that hardness of lips is okay, acceptable, but also that such hardness is actually beneficial in the seeking of truth, an aid or a tool, just as the hardness of heart is an impediment.

Some truths can only be discovered when one stops caring about appearance, the presentation, stops caring what it will look like to others and just allows some truths to emerge, seemingly clumsy and uncivilized. The Piasetzner Rebbe says that in seeking God’s Truth in the world, it is necessary to remove all artifice from one’s speech, to speak like a child, with simple-hearted honesty.

On the flip side, what really gets in the way of truth is a heavy or hard heart -- a heart like Pharaoh’s, fixated on protecting the ego from assault, and therefore closed to the awakening truths around us. Pharaoh was wrong and could not admit it, backing himself farther and farther into problems in order to save face, and refusing to admit the truths staring him in the face because of the heavy layers of ego protection blocking his view.

Moshe, on the other hand, speaks the word of God. Over time, he becomes less and less concerned with how others view him : “But they won’t believe me!” he argues with God at first but later learns to just speak, perhaps not eloquently, but truthfully, the word of God, without concern for how it will be received or perceived.

It was perhaps this lack of concern with self and appearance – his renowned humility – that allowed him to be the conduit for the written word of Truth – the Torah – and allowed him the greatest level of intimacy with God ever granted a human being.

What heaviness of heart stops us from seeing, and what heaviness of appearance – if we learned to embrace it –might actually open us up to truth?