Thursday, December 17, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: On Wheels and Responsibility

What does a wheel symbolize? In our house in Albany, we used to have an old bicycle wheel hanging on our front porch and we would ask visitors what they thought it symbolized. They gave all kinds of deep answers (the truth is it was a symbol of bike-riding, which my husband loves).

What does the wheel symbolize in this week’s parsha? Three times the Torah tells us that Pharaoh/Yosef sent agalot, wagons, to transport the families and possessions of the children of Israel down to Egypt. These wagons seem to have some special significance, as, when the brothers tell Yaakov of their meeting with Yosef, he at first does not believe them, but then, the Torah says, Vayar et ha’agalot, “He saw the wagons,” and “the spirit of their father Jacob revived.”

What do these wagons symbolize? Note that the Hebrew term is agalot, from the word agol, meaning round, showing that the distinguishing feature of wagons is its round wheels.

A wheel is a symbol of connectedness. Look at how all the spokes join together in the center. It is a little reminiscent of Yosef’s dream, with him at the center and all the sheaves bowing down to him. There is a sense of joint purpose and connection.

This is the parsha of reunification. The broken family will finally be reunited with their lost son/brother. Vayigash means “He came forward,” and this verb is repeated numerous times. It is a parsha of meetings, of coming forward, of coming back together, in a place called Goshen, a play on this verb, a coming together place.

And so Yaakov saw the wheel and thought of togetherness and was revived.

The rabbis say that when Yaakov saw the agalot, he was reminded of the eglah arufah, the ritual of the broken-necked heifer which is killed to atone for an unsolved murder, a topic of study Yosef was apparently engrossed in before he left home. So the agaolot reminded Yaakov of the eglah arufah, which was a sign from Yosef that this was really him.

What is this strange connection to the eglah arufah ritual? The basic idea of that ritual is that even if we can’t unravel who killed someone, if a person dies near our city, we are responsible for him. We must somehow atone for our negligence in not coming to his aid, in not properly caring for his so that he would not come to this harmful end.

We are responsible for one another. How does this relate to our parsha? The eglah arufah is brought as a tikkun (a repair) for our lack of responsibility for each other. Here, too, in our parsha, this coming together is also a tikkun for the family’s past lack of responsibility for each other, for its letting go of ties of attachment so much as to actually sell their brother down to Egypt.

What will atone for this past? A renewed sense of connection and taking responsibility for each other. That is why Yehudah is the one who convinces Yaakov to let Binyamin go down to Egypt with him. What he says is simply: I take responsibility for him. You can hold me accountable for him. And indeed, when put to the test, Yehudah stands up for Binyamin, indeed holds himself responsible for his brother. Yosef has created a situation where, if they want, the brothers can leave Binyamin to his own fate and go off, without any responsibility for him. But Yehudah now understands that such an act is not really possible.

Yehudah now understands, after seeing the years of pain that he has caused his father through the loss of Yosef, Yehudah
now understands that we can never escape responsibility for each other. We can never go home and feel fine when our brother is not fine. We are intertwined, like the bicycle spokes, so that if one is sick, we all are. As Yehudah says repeatedly in his speech – I cannot leave Binyamin here because of what it will do to my father and therefore what it will do to me – how can I watch such a thing happen? I am attached. I am responsible.

Like the people of a city near an unsolved murder, what Yehudah says is: We are all responsible for one another. We are all part of one wheel. We may not be aware of our connection. We may think we live independent lives from our neighbors, but the truth is otherwise – the truth is a one-ness and a connectedness that is so healing that after decades of unremitting grief, Yaakov looks at the wheels and his spirit is revived. The truth is we are all part of this wheel, whether we know it or not.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Parashat Vayeshev: Ego in the Way

What stands in the way of hearing God’s message is often our own ego.

The Yosef story begins with his dreams. Yaakov, his father, also had dreams. But what is the difference between them? The one dreamt of a ladder leading up to heaven and God at the top, and the other, of himself in the middle of a circle of bowing family members. The one of God at the top; the other, of himself at the center.

Now, to be sure, there is something divine in Yosef’s dreams. They are a kind of prophetic vision of the future. But what they are missing is one essential element – a sense of who runs the show. Yosef had to learn this the hard way, by being pushed down multiple times, until finally he is able to articulate, at the end of the story, that all was indeed planned by God and that he, Yosef, is merely an instrument of the divine will.

Avraham heard clearly the message to leave his homeland. Yosef, too, had this gift of hearing/seeing the divine plan. But he could not properly understand its contents because his own ego was in the way.

Where is this happening for us in our own lives? When we try to figure out the right path, are we looking for an answer that puts us as the star of the show? Are we trying to figure out how to get others to bow down to us or are we trying to figure out how to understand the role that we, each one of us as an individual, is intended to play in God’s plan?

Parashat Vayeshev/Miketz: On Hearing the Cry

“Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at the anguish of his soul, but did not listen when he pleaded with us.” (42:21)

Thus say Yosef’s brothers in next week’s parsha. We looked on at tzarat nafsho, the anguish of his soul. We did not listen to his pleading. Strangely enough, in this week’s parsha, when we hear of the incident --- the brothers throwing Yosef into the pit and then selling him – we do not hear any pleading on Yosef’s part. What we are told in this week’s parsha is simply that they take him and cast him into the pit. And then right afterward: vayeshvu le’ekhol lekhem. They sat down to eat bread.

What is this breaking of bread right after throwing their brother in a pit? And where is the pleading – Yosef’s cries of anguish -- that the brothers recall in next week’s parsha?

The reality is that they don’t hear Yosef’s cries in the present moment – they don’t register it – because they are hiding from it, hiding from the awful reality of what they have done and how they feel about it. They are hiding and the symbol of their hiding is eating.

The problem is a lack of presence. Later on, they can recall “hearing Yosef’s cries” but at the moment it is happening the Torah doesn’t even record those cries because it is as if they do not exist for these brothers at that moment – they have removed themselves entirely from the situation by turning toward food. Had they taken a moment to “digest” what is going on, to hear those awful cries (it is painful even to imagine it) and to take in the extent of harm they were inflicting on someone that, no matter how irritating, they were nonetheless attached to, had they taken that moment to be present to the cries, all would have turned out differently.

It is our hiding – whether in food or other distractions – it is our hiding that causes pain. Interestingly enough, in recalling the incident the brothers do not blame themselves for their horrific act of throwing their brother into the pit. That was a momentary act of passionate anger and jealousy which could have been forgiven. What is unforgiveable is the turning away from hearing and from presence, the callous shutting out of cries.

In some ways it is easy to dismiss the brothers’ act as too horrific to imagine doing ourselves. But surely there are cries – both of those close to us and of those whom society has blocked from our view – surely there are cries that we are hiding from, cries and problems that we turn to food to escape from, cries that we cannot really hear until is too late. The answer is presence, always presence, presence in the moment so that we do not have to recall the cry, but can hear it right now and respond.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Parashat Vayetze: The Ladder

I want to think a little about this dream that Yaakov has upon leaving home, as he embarks on his new life in Haran. He sees a ladder reaching upward to the sky, with angels going up and down on it and God standing above it.

I’m sure it means many things. Today, what it means to me is: Yankel, in this life of yours, you’re going to go up and you’re going to go down. You’ll have some good times and you’ll have some difficult times. Sometimes you’ll do the right thing and feel that you are climbing to the top of the world and sometimes you’ll be confused and anxious and feel that you are climbing only downward. Life is like that. But through it all, what will you have? God standing above the ladder, watching, looking out for you.

And so God explains, after introducing Himself: Hineh Anokhi Imakh. Behold I am with you. That is the bottom line here, Yaakov – you are not alone on this journey of ups and downs. You are not alone. Remember to tap into that when you need it.

Life is so complicated. In the narrative that follows, it sometimes seems to me that Yaakov and his family are not doing the right thing – his wives compete with each other for his love and eventually his children, too, will compete for his love to the point that they will harm each other. And in the story of Yaakov and Lavan’s sheep, it is far from clear that Yaakov acted in an above the board manner.

Nonetheless, God is with Yaakov. Through it all, Yaakov and his family do remember that one point – almost every name of a child is based on this intimate knowledge of the presence of God in their lives and how God sees each person’s pain.

Through all the ups and downs on the ladder of life, God stands above, present to it all, faithful and steadfast. The angels moving up and down between the human and the divine realms are like the breath that comes in and out of us at each moment. In and out. Up and down. The breath of life that connects us to our source above. In and out, in and out, a continual reminder of steadfastness, of our ability, like God, to ride through the waves, solid and firm in the knowledge of our divine accompaniment.

We desperately need that sense of steadfast connection. Sometimes we look for it in the wrong places, in the refrigerator or in our email – send/receive, like the angels going up and down – we want, we need to tap in to that feeling of connectedness; we need a “plug-in.” The ladder is a symbol of this plug-in, and like Yaakov, we would be surprised to learn, that akhen yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh ve’anokhi lo yadati. Behold God is in this place, in this moment, in this emotional space, and I, I did not know it. Behold there is always such a ladder, with messages flowing in both directions, always there is such connection available to us.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Parashat Toldot: Only One Blessing?

The story of Yitzhak’s giving of blessings to his two sons is a story of blessing gone awry. When God blesses Avraham, the blessing is one which spreads outward positively to those around him --- I will bless you and you will be a blessing. I will make your name great and those who bless you will be blessed. Venevrechu bikha kol mishpahot ha’adamah. And all the families of the earth will become blessed through you. This is a blessing for Avraham and his descendants, yes, but by its nature it overflows to those around him. He is becoming a funnel for blessing to spread through the world.

Yitzhak’s blessings to his sons, by contrast, are of the zero-sum variety. If one person gets something, then necessarily the other does not have it. One brother will rule the other. From Yaakov’s blessing: “Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brothers.” From Esav’s: “You shall serve your brother. But when he starts to fall, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” When one is up, the other is down. There is only room for one winner. That’s why the two sons are fighting, grabbily, over the blessing.

What kind of a blessing is this that only one person can have? The words of Esav ring in our ears – Habrachah ahat likha avi? Have you but one blessing, my father?

Sometimes that is how it seems in life, that there is only one first prize and if someone else gets it, then by necessity I do not. Such a view pits us against each other in a tight narrow competitive race. Is that the nature of our divine blessing?

The competition between the brothers is interrupted in our parsha by another story, this one about wells. Here, too there is competition for scarce resources – the servants of Yitzhak fight with the servants of Grar over who owns each newly found well. Each side says, like the two sons of Yitzhak: It belongs to me, not you. Lanu hamayim. Ours is the water. The fights are so intense that the wells become named for such strife, with names like “Contention” and “Harrassment.”

Now, in the story of the brothers in our parsha, the competition ends in hatred – Esav understandably wants to kill Yaakov for stealing his blessing.

But the story of the wells ends differently. After a number of fights over wells, finally Yitzhak moves to a new place, digs a new well, and there is no fight over it. He calls this well Rehovot, from the root rahav, wide or expansive, saying, “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”

Space. A sense of the breadth of the world and all its infinite resources and possibilities. That is the answer to the competitive spirit. The knowledge that God’s blessings are never ahat, singular, but always rahav, wide and expansive, with room for many to grow and prosper.

Yitzhak had two sons, each with his own talents. Is there only one blessing to be fought over between these two or are there many types of blessings in the world, as infinite and wide as is God Himself and His bounty? How do we access this feeling of divine bounty and avoid the grabbiness and narrowness of feeling that we are all fighting to win the same single prize? Can we remember that the true divine blessing, like the one granted from God to Avraham is, like light, to be spread and increased at no cost, and that it is often only our own human distortion of this blessing that makes it feel like there is a single blessing to be divided among two sons? The well of "expansiveness" gives us a glimpse of an alternative, almost utopian way of viewing things, a glimpse of what is possible beyond the narrowness of yours and mine.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Parashat Hayei Sarah: Praying for Help

To ask for help. That is the most basic element of prayer. To say – I am not capable of doing this alone. Help me to accomplish what I am meant to accomplish. Help me to serve You.

The first person in the Torah to pray such a prayer is not Avraham or Noah but Avraham’s servant in this week’s parsha. We hear his words repeated several times and maybe it is to make clear the importance of such prayer. “O Lord, the God of my master Avraham, grant me good fortune this day and deal graciously with my master Avraham.” Help me to do what I came here to do – find an appropriate wife for Yitzhak.

Every day we say of God, in the blessing of the Amidah, that He is a melekh ozer, “a king who helps.” That is how we open our hearts and minds to prayer – with this most basic acknowledgment of our need for help from above.

We are, each of us, servants, like Avraham’s servant, who were sent out on some mission. We may not know the mission or its purpose, but we can feel that we are here to accomplish some divine purpose. And so our own prayers are similar – O God, please help me to succeed in my task. Or as the hazan (prayer leader) says in the beginning of Musaf on the High Holidays, heyeh na matzliah darki – Please help make my way, my path, successful.

There are days and there are days. On some days, we go about our lives busy and confident, without any sense of needing help. On these days, we pray in order to be humbled, to remind ourselves that nothing we accomplish we do alone. On other days, we feel overwhelmed and depressed over the impossibility of the tasks before us. On such days, we pray for encouragement and support, we pray to remind ourselves that we are indeed not alone, and we ask desperately for the help we need from above, feeling solace in the very act of asking.

May our way be paved and may we know how to ask for help in paving it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Parashat Vayera: To Pray for Another

“One who prays for another when one is also in need of the very same thing – he is answered first.” (Rashi on Breishit 21:1) So if you are looking for a job and you have a friend in the same predicament – you should pray for that other person to find one.

This principle emerges out of this week’s parsha: After King Avimelech mistakenly takes the “sister” Sarah, Avraham prays for him and his household to be healed and they all start having children. Ah – but a child is what Avraham himself is in need of! And he prayed for others to have children?! Indeed, immediately after this incident the Torah says that Sarah, too, had a child. It is as if Avraham’s prayer for Avimelech’s household somehow opened up the gates of blessing for his own. By desiring blessing for another, we bring blessing upon ourselves.

We often think of the nature of blessing as being limited and finite so that if another person gets the job or the honor it means that we won’t. This sets up a feeling of tightness and stress, of competitiveness and envy. We don’t desire another’s good fortune because in some deep way we feel it would take away from our own, especially in areas where we are very much in need ourselves. It is as if we are thirsty for water and so we don’t desire that water be given to another person – we feel that there is a draught and if another person drinks the water, there won’t be enough for us.

Avraham shows us that that’s not how blessing works. By desiring good for another, we actually turn the key that opens up the floodgates of blessing and lets it all rain down upon everyone – ourselves first of all. It is as if, by opening our hearts to desire good for another, we create a space of openness, a funnel through which divine blessing can flow into the world. And once blessing comes, there is no limit. It is not tight and limited, but open and never-ending.

Can we step into that mind-frame? When we pray, can we think of someone who we know is in the same state we are in, desiring and yearning and needing some of the same things we need, and can we truly pray for that person – really desire their good fortune without holding back? Whatever else happens, we will have elevated ourselves in the process, removed ourselves from the narrow window-frame of our own personal concerns and entered an expansive world of shared blessings.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Parashat Lekh Lekha: On Patience

Patience. It’s an undervalued trait in this society. Here I am on my third try at a blog post topic and I have lost patience, lost patience and faith not just in my capacity to write this one blog, but also in any future calling for Torah work.

How quickly we lose faith. How quickly we become impatient – impatient to know that all will work out okay, impatient to have clarity and direction and knowledge and expertise, impatient to arrive.

Not so Avraham our father. My own father used to say about Avraham (it was a running joke in our family because of the way he used to say it) – “400 years! What a long range perspective!” 400 years refers to God’s promise to Avraham that, though his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land, they would eventually return and inherit the land. Avraham had the capacity, the patience, to see to the end of a 400 year span, to wait that long for redemption.

And he waited, oh how he waited for children. Many promises and false starts, to the point where he must have wondered if it was really ever going to happen. That’s what happens to us when things take a long time to come – we don’t say – ok, it’s just taking time, but it will happen eventually. We look at the situation and say – it will never happen. How short-sighted we are. We want what we want and we want it yesterday.

That’s why, when God shows him the stars and promises him endless children for the third time (chapter 15), the Torah says that Avraham believed and God considered this belief to be a great merit. Not easy this patience. It only comes from being a person of true faith and trust.

Can we trust this way? Can we relax into the present, rest knowing that transformation does happen, even if in its own slow time? Can we lean into the journey and not expect immediate results, but yes – just be patient to see what comes?

I am reminded of another of my father’s favorite sayings, this from a different era of my growing up life – from my 20’s when I was endlessly dating and never finding the right person. Here the expression is in some ways the opposite – yeshuat Hashem keheref ayin, God’s salvation is like the blink of an eye. Meaning – change can happen suddenly and problems can be solved in a single moment by one simple change. Like meeting the right person to marry. One day you’re alone and the next you’re not. Or for Avraham and Sarah – one minute they had no children; the next they had one.

Impatience runs deep among us. It is a kind of idol worship – indeed it is understood to be the cause of the original idol worship, the Golden Calf, as they were too impatient for Moshe’s return. We are always wanting to see the end. We want to know that Moshe will come back, we want to know that all will be well, that there will eventually be a child, that we will eventually finish writing this dissertation or this book. This week I will try to learn a little from Avraham – to have faith that, whether in the blink of an eye or in a slow gradual way, the right transformations will come, and that to be impatient is to lose the opportunity to feel the Presence in the present as it is.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Parashat Noah: In Memory of Loving Parents

Not everything depends on how you act. The world was violent and evil and God destroyed it with a flood, but after the flood God makes a brit (covenant) with all of creation that He will never again bring such a flood over the earth. This brit does not depend on people being good. God now knows that people have an inherent capacity for great evil. He knows they will continue to be evil. He makes His promise despite this knowledge, out of sheer kindness and mercy.

This is the first brit of the Torah and I think it is definitive – it is a one-sided promise by God to be kind. Later britot (covenants) perhaps involve a bit more of a give and take, but always I think there is that essential ingredient of undeserved divine kindness or grace. When God makes a brit with Avraham, He promises him that his children will be like the sky and the earth and that they will inherit this piece of earth and also tells of their future of both suffering and redemption. God does not make this overflow of divine blessing dependent on any actions on Avraham’s part. Yes, he chose Avraham because of his fine character – his faithfulness and divine-like kindness and pursuit of justice-- and God fully expects Avraham to teach his children these values, but the brit is not dependent on anything. As with the post-flood brit, this one is a freely given promise of kindness and blessing.

Of course the 10 commandments, the central brit of the Torah, most assuredly does involve a certain reciprocity. God says He will be our God and we will be His people if we listen and obey His laws and then He spells out what those laws are. But what is interesting here is that the people put God and this new “action-dependent” brit to the test almost immediately with the sin of the Golden Calf. And it turns out that God will be our God and we will be His people even if we mess up, even if we don’t always obey His laws. This brit, too, does not really depend on our actions, but is essentially a promise by God to stick with us. In a way, the law, the Torah, is not so much the terms of the covenant, as it is the gift itself, freely given by God to enhance our lives, much like the gifts of children and land given to Avraham in an earlier brit.

It all goes back to the nature of that first post-flood brit. There, too, it was after an initial pursuit of justice, a cycle of human evil and divine punishment, that God lets us see that alongside this justice the world is also run through freely flowing love and mercy, through the bestowal of gifts which we do not deserve and do not need to earn.

I am not trying to take away from our pursuit of goodness in this life. I think most of us are already engaged in that pursuit. But I think it helps once in a while to remember that love is free, that we don’t have to earn God’s kindness or love, that in fact we have an obligation to feel and appreciate the free nature of the gifts we are continually given.

This week is the yahrtzeit of my father, Moshe Shmuel be Shimon Tuvia HaLevi, z”l. And only a few days ago, my cousins lost their father, my dear uncle in Israel, my sister-in-law lost her father, and a community friend in Atlanta lost his father.

That’s what you lose when you lose a parent – free love. There are not a lot of people in this world who will love you no matter what. Yes, your parents have expectations for you (like God for Avraham and his descendants) and you often feel you come up short. But in the end of the day, the bottom line is – you are loved for free, not in exchange for anything in particular, but simply out of sheer grace, an overflow of the divine heart into the heart of the parent. May the memory of this type of love from our parents help us continue to feel it from them and from God, and cultivate it in our own hearts for our children and those around us. Not everything in life needs to be earned. May their memories be for a blessing.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why I Love Yom Kippur

The Mishnah in Taanit says that Yom Kippur is one of the two most joyous days in our calendar (the other is Tu b’Av, a little known summer holiday). Is Yom Kippur joyous? It is the Day of Judgment when we confess our sins and communally acknowledge just how rotten we’ve been all year. Why is this a day of joy?

First, because it feels good to acknowledge your imperfections. I heard the other day on the radio a young man speaking about his depression, and he said that the turning point came when he admitted out loud what was bothering him -- the problem was the need to appear perfect in the world. It is a tremendous relief to acknowledge vulnerability and imperfection, for one day to be wholly honest about who we are. And an even greater relief to do so communally – to say – yes, I have done this wrong and that wrong, but I am not alone. Ashamnu -- we are all guilty. We all stand before God, supremely conscious of our shared imperfect humanity. This connects us to God, yes, but it also connects us to each other, reminding us that every one of us, no matter what perfect public face we put on, has struggles.

Second, there is joy in cleansing. I have been doing a lot of house cleaning lately and finding, to my surprise, that I enjoy it. There is something so satisfying about watching a dirty sink turn clean, seeing the pile of dust removed from the floor. It is a very basic human need – cleanliness and a sense of order. Yom Kippur is a Day of Atonement – a day when we see the dirt and get to watch our slates, no matter how dirty, get wiped clean. There is a feeling of catharsis – like the feeling after a good cry or a particularly intimate fight and reconciliation – the air is cleared and we feel exultant, alive, hopeful and ready to try again.

Third, there is joy in passing through a trial together with a team. Yom Kippur is hard – physically it is hard to fast and stand all day, and emotionally it is hard to concentrate and pray and think about one’s misdeeds all day. But it is this very suffering, this inui , which also makes it joyful . We suffer together with a community and so it becomes a point of connection and intimacy among us, a shared trial. And we suffer for a cause – we are involved in something meaningful and it is okay if it is hard – that’s what makes it enjoyable. People like to do hard things. They enjoy the challenge and the sense, at the end, of fulfillment and completion. The exultant kaddish at the end of a long Musaf on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is an example of this.

Finally, and perhaps most basically, Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it is the day of greatest intimacy with God. It is a day of judgment, yes, but it is also a day of mercy and love, a day of connection, a day when we become aware of just how permanent our connection is to the Holy One. Ki anu amekha ve’atah elokeinu. That is the bottom line – We are Your nation, and you are Our God. Yom Kippur is not like Shavuot – a day of perfection when God gave the first Tablets. No, Yom Kippur is the day we celebrate God’s continuing commitment to and love of us even after we sin. It is the day when we heard that we were forgiven for the Sin of the Golden Calf and received the second tablets – a covenant built out of the fabric of our imperfection. There is great comfort and great joy in such a covenant – no matter that we can’t seem to ever get it quite right – we can move forward secure in the knowledge that we are still wrapped in God’s eternal love.

Some Post Rosh HaShanah Thoughts on Judgment

Ever since Rosh HaShanah I have been thinking about judgment. Not God’s judgment, but our own human judgment.

On Rosh HaShanah we read the story of Hannah’s prayer for a child. I have always thought this story is related to Rosh HaShanah because it is an example of someone who cries and whose prayer is answered by God. This year, though, what struck me was the theme of judgment – the High Priest Eli falsely judges Hannah. He sees her praying silently, her lips moving but without a sound, and he judges her – wrongly – to be drunk. One can almost hear the self-righteous thoughts going through his mind – Imagine the nerve of that woman, to come into this holy place so drunk! Who does she think she is!

But the truth was otherwise, of course. The truth was, and often is, that this person we see acting strangely and often irritatingly before us, this person is suffering. We judge them harshly; our blood pressure goes up as we feel the anger mount – the nerve! How could they! But the truth is – they’re simply in pain. Like Hannah, what makes them act in this unusual way is an inner suffering that only God has access to.

Which is why, this time of year we remind ourselves that there is really only one Judge, and it isn’t us. We are all humans, limited and wrong-headed in our judgment of one another. We are faulty judges.

We are faulty judges because we don’t really know what is going on for another person. Our first response is often not to be curious or open to hearing the truth – we are quick to assume the worst.

We are faulty judges because we judge from our own self-centered vantage point. Perhaps Eli was particularly sensitive to slights to his honor as a priest and considered drunkenness in the sanctuary to be a personal affront to his own honor. We know this scenario. We are engrossed in our own tallying of personal honor and shame and see everyone else’s actions through this prism – we feel hurt and therefore we judge, without being able to get out of the blindness of this self-centered perspective to see the reality of the person in front of us.

But the Hannah and Eli story has a happy ending. Eli is humble and open enough to hear Hannah when she explains herself, to allow his first impression to be corrected. And once he hears her, he blesses her – go in peace and may God grant your request. And, after she leaves this encounter, the verse says that Hannah was no longer downcast. Where there was judgment, there is now understanding, compassion, and the ultimate antidote to judgment – blessing.

In a way, the story can be conceived then as story of Eli’s teshuva, his repentance from the sin of judging another harshly. This is the task then --- to turn our feelings of judgment into compassion and blessing, to learn to see the suffering inside those whom we would naturally judge, and find it in ourselves to bless them with peace and good wishes. To feel their need for blessing in place of our need to judge them. We will feel better about ourselves as well as others in the process and all be blessed with peace.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Parashat Nitzavim and Rosh HaShanah: On Stability and Repentance

Atem Nitzavim Hayom. You stand today. Rashi says these words are meant as words of comfort. The people have just heard all the possible curses and terrible outcomes if they don’t keep all of God’s laws and they say, with despair – How can anyone do this? We are not capable. Moshe responds – Here you are standing today. “Today,” like the “day” itself which has both darkness and light and yet still exists. You still exist. You have angered God before, you have failed many times already and yet here you stand today, still standing, still in existence. You have and will always have the darkness and the light and yet you still stand. And yes, there will be changes – the people are going through a transition of leadership right at that moment, from Moshe to Yehoshua – so yes, changes will occur, but always remember --- atem nitzavim hayom, you are like a matzevah, a statue – you stand and remain.

The Zohar says that this hayom, this “today”, refers to “the ultimate day,” which is the Day of Judgment, Rosh HaShanah. It was on this day all those years ago that Moshe gave this comforting speech to the people of Israel as they entered into a second covenant with God.

That is the nature of covenant, of brit, itself – it is a contract we make with God that is permanent -- God swears He will be our God and we swear we will be His people, no matter what happens. Rashi also says that God gives them all these curses precisely because of the permanence of His agreement with them – God can’t get out of it; He is stuck forever, and so He has to find ways to get the people to obey, because, the bottom line is – God is in it for the long run.

This is a comforting message as “the day” of Judgment approaches. That feeling of despair is familiar – life often feels simply impossible – it is impossible to fulfill all of one’s obligations and ambitions and all that life and Torah seem to tell us we ought to be doing and accomplishing. Some days one simply feels overwhelmed by what one has not done or by what one has done not quite in the right way. This time of year we take stock of our imperfections and fallibilities. And so it is this time of year that we also need to be reminded that atem nitzavim hayom -- you/we are still standing here, before God, still in the covenant, stable, permanent, continuous, no matter what happens. Light and dark, good and bad – it’s all part of the parcel of the being human, and in spite of it all, we are still standing.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t work to improve ourselves. But there is an important balance here between despair and repair, between the feeling of hopelessness that one simply cannot succeed and the sense that it is still worth trying. And I think that what fuels an attitude of repair and repentance is not just awareness of what is wrong, but also and perhaps even more essentially, a sense of security about the relationship. We will always stand here before God – God promises to remember His covenant no matter what we do, and it is out of this relationship, in the context of this relationship that we have the security and the confidence to try harder.

Like a good marriage or a good parenting relationship, our relationship with God can provide just such security – a loving safe space in which to grow and transform ourselves. Atem nitzavim hayom -- we stand stable today and every day, secure in the knowledge that though we, like the day, will have darkness and light, God will continue to sustain and love us.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Parashat Ki Tavo: Simcha (Joy) Squared

Samahti veSimahti bo (Rashi on Devarim 26:14). “I have enjoyed it and caused others joy through it.” The “it” here refers to the gifts of a bountiful harvest out of which one was to give certain tithes. After the completion of these tithes, the farmer had to declare that he had done “all that God had commanded him” to do with his produce. Rashi comments that what the reciter means is: Samahti veSimahti bo. “I have enjoyed it and caused others joy through it.”

Maybe that’s the bottom line. So simple. We are given many gifts – life, health, family, food, shelter, a beautiful world, gifts of talent and intellect. This time of year we are thinking of the reckoning we are to do with God – maybe that’s the account we must give – all those gifts we were given – did we enjoy them? And did we use them to serve others, to bring others joy?
This concept of enjoying the gifts God grants us is not as simple as it sounds. There is some hesitation, some sense of ascetic guilt which stops us from fully enjoying what we are given, stops us from jumping up and down with joy at the sight of our children growing, our dinner plates bountiful. We hold back. We don’t notice.

The message here is that it is a religious obligation to enjoy the gifts God gives us. God is like any other gift-giver: When you give someone a gift, when you go to the trouble of actually thinking what that person might like and spend the time and the money and/or the energy to obtain the gift, what return do you want for your gift? What you most desire, what is most gratifying, is to see the receiver of your gift truly enjoying it – wearing the necklace or using the bowl. So it is with God – God wants to see us enjoying His beautiful world, being happy in the life bestowed upon us, knowing how to celebrate.

Often even our “blessings” come with aggravation and stress – it’s as if we are overwhelmed by “blessings” -- too much good work to do, too much food to cook, too many children to drive around and attend to. One of my mother’s friends has a policy – she never complains about something that is essentially good, no matter how stressful. To see the negative, to complain and feel down-trodden is a kind of affront to the Gift-giver. Strange as it sounds, we have to remember, in all the stress and turmoil of our every day lives, to actually enjoy our gifts.

The second part of the obligation – causing others joy through our gifts – only enhances the first, our own joy. We see how we are like an overflowing cup, with gifts to spare and share, and we feel the bounty and joyousness of our own gifts even more so. The Torah speaks often of the simchah, the joy of the worshipper who comes to Jerusalem to eat his tithed produce, and the joy is always communal – you will enjoy this produce, you and the Levite and the poor in your gates. Together the joy is magnified. Samahti ve’simahti bo. The words sound like simchah squared. Like the noise and energy of children put together in a room, joy is something that grows exponentially when shared.

And so, in this time of serious, guilt-ridden heshbon nefesh (self-accounting), we should remember the bottom line – what we owe God is primarily joy – our own and that of others. May this be a year of great joy for us all.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Parashat Ki Tetze: On Parenting and the Mother Bird

The Torah commands us, if we wish to take for ourselves some eggs or young chicks, to first send away the mother bird. In this command to send away the mother bird, what the Torah is acknowledging is the deep pain a parent experiences in witnessing the suffering of her children. The pain the children will experience is one thing and the Torah allows it, but the pain of the parent in witnessing that pain, that is of a wholly different order.

We parents know what this pain is. Someone once said to me that being a parent is like having your heart walk around in someone else’s body. Indeed, that is often what it feels like. We cannot stop our children from suffering. They will come to some harm or difficulty in this world and we cannot prevent it. So it is that we are often left merely to witness it, to bear the sadness in our hearts and carry that sadness with us as we once carried their tiny bodies.

Perhaps that is our role, a sacred essential role – to learn to suffer with another human being. A parent is the face of God on earth. Last night as I sat holding one of my children, who was crying over a sad lonely day in a new school, I was keenly aware once again that all I could do was be present to this suffering. And I thought to myself – I want him to know that at least no matter what happens, he is not alone in this sadness, but that others are always with him, all those many who care about him, including God. How will he know, I thought, that God, too, cares? Perhaps one learns about God, feels the care and protection and empathy of God, through one’s parents. That is our job – to be God’s ears and heart on earth.

In commanding us to send away the mother bird so that she does not witness her children’s suffering, the Torah has, in a way, defined the role of parent for us as a witness to suffering, as the very divine act of simple Presence.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

My Father's Coat

My father always bought quality products – things that would last and do the job properly. This week, in the extremely cold weather, I have been wearing my father’s down coat. It is long and well-made, with thick down stuffing and pockets and zippers and flaps in all the right places. You put it on and, no matter how cold you were a second before, you are immediately wrapped in a toasty blanket of warmth.

Each time I put on that coat this week and felt that immediate surge of warmth, I felt not just physically warmer, but emotionally buoyed. My father’s love was reaching out from beyond and continuing to nourish and warm me. No matter what happens around me, I can walk around the world wrapped in its warmth and protection.

I wonder whether this isn’t also how we are meant to experience God – we say that God spreads a sukkah, a shelter over us, that we dwell in His shadow, that He is mahsi umetzudati, “my shelter and my refuge” (Psalm 91). To walk with God -- to keep God’s presence constantly in one’s consciousness -- is to live with a great warm overcoat of love and protection and to walk through the world enwrapped by this feeling.