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.