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?