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.