Friday, December 23, 2016

For Chanukah: A Little Bit of Light Goes a Long Way

Sometimes it feels like there is more evil in the world than good. At this time of year, there is certainly more dark than light. And some days the problems and the tasks – our own and the world’s – seem like they are more immense and numerous than our energy to deal with them.

Chanukah teaches that a little light can go a long way to dispel a world of darkness. Rabim beyad me’atim. The many [were given over] into the hand of the few. Maybe it’s true that there are more hours of darkness than light this time of year and maybe it’s true that there were more Greeks than Jews. But the few – the good, the light – nonetheless win.

Sometimes all it does take is a little bit of oil, a little bit of light, and the immense sense of darkness inside is gone. A small gesture of kindness, one tiny moment of connection with someone, a glimpse of a child’s joyful play – these little things can change our perspective so completely that the very same life which a moment ago felt impossible, now somehow seems manageable; bathed in light, our hope is reborn.

Maybe that is what it means to have faith, to believe that in spite of the odds, the many will be defeated and the light will always return. To have faith is to take steps to dispel the darkness even when it seems like all is lost, that there really isn’t enough oil to make it through all those days, to take those little steps anyway in the faith that one small jug of oil can dispel a whole world of darkness.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Parashat Vayishlah: Our Enemies are our Angels

God takes different forms on this earth. When Avraham interacts with God’s messengers in the world, they are visitors, wandering strangers who are in need of hospitality. The face of God in the world for Avraham is the face of hospitality, of hesed, of people in need of help.

For Yaakov, on the other hand, God’s face is the face of his enemy, his brother Esav, with whom he has struggled all his life. Yaakov struggles with an angel on the night before he meets Esav, and the next day, when he meets Esav, Yaakov says: “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10). Avraham sees God in the face of his guests, while Yaakov sees God in the face of those he struggles and fights with.

We have different opportunities for seeing God every day. Is God in the face of the person on the street corner looking for some help? Can we also see God in our competitors, in those with whom we have trouble, who irritate us, those with whom we struggle and have conflict? Yaakov could not have finished growing up without this confrontation with Esav. Those we fight with help us in some way; they, too – no, they, especially – are angels sent from God to help refine us, to teach us where we are wrong, where we have work to do. Our enemies are our angels.

We have a tendency to think that God resides only in the pretty places in life, in the flowers and the trees and in the moments of peace and love. But Yaakov, the scrappy third in line, is a struggler, and for him, God appears also in the struggles and the fights, also in the face of the brother who swore to kill him.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Parashat Vayetze: On Restlessness and Yaakov's Dream

We are restless. Whatever we are doing is not enough. Where we are is not good enough. We think we should also be somewhere else, doing something more.

I think that Yaakov’s ladder dream is an answer to this restlessness. He, too, had a restless spirit, a need to grab and try to be where he was not even invited to be, and now he is running, fleeing from an angry brother.

The dream has these angels moving up and down the ladder. They aren’t getting anywhere. They are just going up and down in place. They are like our breath, in and out, in and out, no matter where we are.

The root yatzav, which means “stand” in a very solid, stable way is used here a few times. The ladder is mutzav and God is nitzav and then later, Yaakov builds a matzevah (statue) Even as he starts on his journey, he is learning something about standing and staying put.

What he learns is that “Behold God is in this place and I was not aware of it.” What he learns is that God is right here. You don’t have to run around all the time, running after your brother or running after the next professional or personal opportunity. God is right here, where you are. In fact, the only way to reach God is to stop for a moment and be present here. All that running is just running away.

And if you do stop and stand as still as a matzevah, a statue, and notice the angels of breath that connect you to heaven at each moment, in and out, in and out, the miracle of being alive, if you do stop, then what you realize is not just that God is in this place, but that actually everything -- all of time and all of space – are also in this place. Right here and right now contains inside it all of the world.

There is a beautiful midrash that God folded up all of the land of Israel underneath Yaakov’s still, sleeping body. The whole land is literally right here. We don’t need to go anywhere; just stop and notice and be present; the whole world is contained in any place that we are truly present . All of space is contained – vertically, the angels go up and down, and horizontally, God promises Yaakov the east, the west, the south and the north.

In such a moment of presence is also contained all of time. To be present in the present strangely also means to become part of an eternal time that includes the past and the future as well. Yaakov stopped in this place and felt God’s presence and so entered into God’s time, across time. God says to him – I am the God of your ancestors – the past – and your descendants will be numerous and inherit this land – the future. Standing still in the present means entering a time that is beyond time and connects you to all of space and to all of history.

Yaakov is understood to be the original inheritor of Shabbat and I think it is related to this dream, to this sense of perfect stillness that contains all. On Shabbat we inhabit a time and a place that are somehow beyond time and place, because we are connected to “The Place,” hamokom, God.

We get glimpses of this feeling – of a stillness that opens up into everything, where we can feel all of time and space collapsing and uniting and it is perfectly clear to us that it is all intimately interwoven into oneness. We probably do still need to run around most of the time. I assume the restlessness, too, has some purpose in goading us to action. But it is nonetheless helpful to remind ourselves as we set out on our journeys, like Yaakov, that if we are really present right here and right now, the whole world is here and we need run nowhere else to seek it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Parashat Toldot: What Would You Do To Get a Blessing?

Sometimes I think that the Torah, in these early stories, presents us not with an ideal to follow, but more of a mirror to see more clearly our daily insanity.

I think that is the case with the fight over the blessings in this week’s parsha. The phrase that comes to mind here is the modern Israeli phrase, ad kedei kakh? “To that extent?” Really? Is being the first born so important that we would fight in the womb over it, holding on to the ankle of our brother? Is it so important that we would dress or dress our child up in his sibling’s clothing in an elaborate scheme to fool the father? Really?

To what end all this manipulating? What is it that they -- and we -- are out there fighting for all the time anyway? What is it we are climbing over each other to get? A blessing? Is that how one receives blessings? By fighting tooth and nail and furry skin over it? What are we in this rat race in the first place for? And is it getting us there? Or is it rather, as Yaakov suspects, bringing a curse down on us instead of a blessing, all this heel-chasing?

These parshiyyot do present a few glimpses of real blessing, and they do not come as a result of these schemes but from quiet moments of peace with God.

One occurs when Yitzhak, after being involved in his own contentious fights over the ownership of a well [itself a symbol of blessing], finally sees that “God has made things expansive for us,” naming this new well Rehovot, “Expansiveness.” This feeling of expansiveness -- that there is plenty of water for all to share – is the opposite mode of the heel-chasing fight over the blessing in the rest of the parsha. And it leads to a real sense of blessing and peace – following this event, God appears to Yitzhak and blesses him that He, God will be with him and always bless him, and then Avimelekh appears again to make a treaty and they all break a meal bshalom, in peace.

True blessing does not come from the fight.

For Yaakov, true blessing comes to him in the beginning of next week’s parsha. Running away from home with nothing but the clothes on his back, he lies down with a rock for a pillow and finally does get a real blessing, not from his father, but from God Himself, who stands over him with His ladder of angels and promises him to be with him and protect him on his way.

We chase blessing constantly through all kinds of manipulations. We worry that we will not get what we need unless we hold on tight to the ankle in front of us and sometimes we even betray our own true identity in search of this ostensible external blessing. This parsha makes me wonder whether such seeking is helpful or whether perhaps true blessing comes from those moments of internal peace, when we are calm enough and expansive enough to feel God's presence and simply know that we are always blessed.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Parashat Chaye Sarah: On Doing Favors

To do another person a favor is a more weighty act than we usually think. There is a Hasidic notion that sometimes a soul comes down to earth for 70 or 80 years with the sole purpose of doing a specific favor for one particular person. What an awesome thing is that favor! But as we don’t know which one we were sent here to do, we have to treat them all with the same sanctity.

“I will give you to drink, and I will also give water to your camels.” So says Rivka to Avraham’s servant in this week’s parsha. Perhaps it was to do this one act that she was sent down to earth.

It is a simple act, this giving of water, but it has a huge impact, unlocking blessings from bracelets to marriage and children to the continuation of our people. Such is the weight of a favor sometimes.

Rivka encapsulates the favor-giving attitude. She is unstingy with her time. Can you imagine the scenario? She, a young maiden, serving a wealthy master’s servant and helping him not just with one camel – and they drink a lot – but with all 10. If it were me, I would be tempted to say, or at least think – why can’t you do it yourself (or at least help me do it)? You look strong enough. Or – I have my own animals to worry about, too. But we get no such sign of skepticism or stinginess from Rivka. She gives freely and enthusiastically of her energy, which is, after all, often our most precious commodity. Like the water coming out of her pitcher, she fairly overflows with generosity and good heart.

Here is gemilut hasadim, the doing of kind deeds, at its best. Note the repeated use of the word hesed in this parsha and also, a bit more subtly, the word gamal, “camel” (thank you to my son Medad for this idea).

The ultimate doer of hesed, as Avraham’s servant repeatedly reminds us, is God. Do we deserve all the good we get daily? Do we really deserve these beautiful children, all this plentiful food and the stunning world He created for us? Of course not. It is all hesed, free giving done, like Rivka, without calculation. When we feel the full extent of that blessing and that overflowing generosity, when we can really see that cornucopia, we can also, like Rivka, give to others in that same unstinting way.

It is sometimes difficult to know what action to take in this confused world. Maybe it will help to remind ourselves that the whole point may be quite simple --- the whole point may be to do one person a particular favor and to do it in Rivka’s generous way.

Parashat Chaye Sarah: On Avraham's Servant and Service of God

Everyone knows that Avraham’s servant’s name is Eliezer. The Torah tells us about him and names him earlier in the Avraham saga. Why, in this week’s parsha, do we hear of him solely as eved Avraham, “the servant of Avraham”?

Perhaps part of Eliezer’s function in this parsha is to teach us about service. We are commanded to be avdei Hashem, “servants of God.” How does one do this? Take a page from Avraham’s servant’s book.

He is single-minded in his pursuit of the task his master has assigned him. He is in such a rush he seems to have arrived at the spot even without travelling. Rashi says he had kefitzat haderekh, “jumping of the road,” – his journey took less time than Waze predicted.

And all of this servant’s many speeches are all for one purpose – to achieve his mission of getting a proper wife for his master’s son. And so, again, to match his enthusiasm there is a quickening of time and in the middle of making a deal with God, there she appears, the right woman, the very first he sees.

When he gets to the house, he is offered food but no, Avraham’s servant must first perform his task. There is nothing else on his mind but to fulfill his master’s mission – get the girl home. Again, after they agree, there is the possibility of delay – the family suggests staying around for a year or so, as was traditional – but Eliezer insists and she agrees and off they go.

Zerizut, “alacrity,” and total focus on the mission at hand are the hallmarks of this servant and so should they be our hallmarks as servants of God. Our tasks may be less clearly defined, but if we keep in the forefront of our minds at all times that we are servants of God, put here to perform some helpful function, that our primary desire is simply to be of service, if we keep this in mind and do not stray, then we, too, will have kefitzat haderekh, “jumping of the road”, God’s aid in achieving our goals.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Parashat Vayera: On Strangers and Angels

Sometimes the people we think of as strangers turn out to be angels in disguise. Avraham saw three people in the distance. He did not know they were angels; he thought they were just weary travelers in need of hospitality. They turned out to be angels sent by God to bless him and Sarah with a child.

Maybe strangers are sent to us as a test -- a test our openness and generosity and faith in the bounty of God’s gifts to us. If we treat them like Avraham treated them, with an open tent, a warm meal and a welcoming heart, then they become blessing angels, sent to bring us blessing and fruitfulness. But if, on the other hand, we treat them like the people of Sodom treated strangers – we take advantage of their vulnerability to harm them – then they become divine agents not of blessing, but of destruction.

I am reminded of all those childhood stories about the ugly hag who stops the child on his journey, asking for a little bread or some assistance. The old hag turns out to have magical abilities and she then curses or blesses the child depending on the child’s reaction.

Perhaps we too are tested in this way, and when we give to those who are strange and unknown to us then we discover that they are angels who carry blessings, and when we don’t, we find that they are criminals sent to hurt us.

Many are the strangers in our lives – those from other countries or cultures, those with different political views, even those closest to us have aspects of the stranger in them. If we can somehow keep our tent open and invite them in, we will turn those strangers into angels of divine blessing; they will teach us something we need to learn and we will grow and be fruitful.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Yom Kippur: On Perfection and Imperfection

Perfection. We keep waiting to become perfect. In some future time -- we imagine -- we will have all our issues figured out and our priorities clear and our lives perfectly organized and calibrated and we will understand and act in a balanced righteous generous patient way all of the time.

Around this time of year each year, I am confronted by the fact that once again I have fallen short of this goal of perfection. My son, Medad, taught me a beautiful interpretation of the ram in the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. The ram is said to be caught in the thicket. He keeps trying to get loose but gets caught again. This is like us and our habitual problems and sins; we are caught in them; we keep trying to get out and are still caught. Each year on Yom Kippur we discover anew that we are still caught.

It’s not that we don’t make progress from year to year. Hopefully we do make some progress. But we never do get to perfection. We are never really free of all the thickets.

The wonder of Yom Kippur is that we are told we can approach God anyway. Nobody comes to Yom Kippur as spiritually clean as their white clothes. We give ourselves permission at the start to pray with sinners, not just those others around us who are sinners, but also ourselves. We give ourselves permission to be imperfect. To be imperfect but to still stand and pray in the presence of God.

Don’t think you’re not good enough to speak to God, to connect. Sometimes I think that does stop us from praying, from really opening our hearts, that fear of unworthiness. No, we are told. God loves us in all our imperfections. Yom Kippur is really a celebration of divine love, of forgiving, merciful divine love, of a God who knows the worst about us and loves us anyway. Is there any love greater than that? To love us in all our imperfection?

The one thing God demands of us is a broken heart. He is, above all, rachmana de’anei letiverei liba, the Merciful One who answers the broken-hearted. Our is not the God of the perfect, but the God of the broken. What we have to offer God is not a perfect slate, but a broken heart, a heart that yearns, oh, how it years, to do better, but is, like the ram, still caught in the thicket.

All year we have the illusion of control. This time of year breaks down that illusion and we finally have to admit that in many respects we are not in control; whether we live or we die, we remind ourselves, is ultimately not in our hands. And, though we work hard to be better, on some level, in the final hour, we also ask God for help in this area. We admit that we need help, that the constant struggle to better ourselves has left us broken-hearted and despairing. We fall prostrate before God and admit imperfection and failure and despair, and it is out of this broken-heartedness that we emerge anew, reconnected to God, embraced by love and compassion, and ready to start the year and try again.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

For Rosh Hashanah: On a Return To Connection

A return to connectedness. That is why we work to repair our relationships with one another and with God. We are returning to connectedness. We are plugging back in above to the place from which we came. And we are reasserting our deep buried knowledge of our essential connection to others.

The midrash says that when God first created the human, the human was both male and female and then God split them apart. That is why we all have a basic loneliness and a yearning for connection. We unconsciously remember a time we were part of a larger whole.

And on Rosh Hashanah we return to this original connection, our original connection both to God and to each other.
The Sefat Emet says that on Rosh Hashanah we experience a slight taste of the world before creation, an undifferentiated world where all was God and all was therefore one without separation.

Notice the repeated emphasis in our Rosh Hashanah davening on unity – we celebrate God’s kingship by asserting that there will be a time when all creatures will join together as one unit (agudah ahat) in worship of God. On that day, God will be one and His name will be one. We are pointing back to pre-creation and forward to the end of times when we will circle back to this state of total unity.

Having a glimpse of such unity could help us live better. Many of the obstacles we face in spiritual growth, the impediments to balance and happiness and life satisfaction, are related to our extreme self-absorption and isolation. We view everything from the skewed perspective of “me,” as if we are each the star of the movie, and when we suffer it often involves our egos in some way or simply our soul’s lack of connection.

The tefillot of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all phrased in the plural and done in community to draw us back out of this mirage of separation back into the world of connectedness, to an experience of a life that is connected above, connected to those around us and also connected richly to those who came before us and to those who will come after us. We are embedded, essential members of an eternal chain. We are plugged in to the God who joins us all.
May it be a year of connectedness for all of us.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Pre-Selichot Thoughts on Patience

Melekh ne’elav, God is a king who bears insults. In his discussion of the 13 attributes of God, Moses Cordovero describes the situation in this way: God is continually providing for us, sustaining us at every moment through His flow of love and energy. And the remarkable thing is that this continues to happen even when we sin or stray from His course. He still sends down that flow of energy; He still sustains us and does not withhold anything despite the insult we have inflicted upon Him.

Two of the 13 middot (attributes) which we will begin to recite on Saturday night as part of the Selichot service, two of them deal with this notion of a long suffering injured king.

The first is Erekh Apayim. Literally, this term means “Long of the nostrils,” meaning that God takes a long time to anger. He takes slow, long breaths, as it were, instead of the quick ones we associate with anger. God is patient. He doesn’t rush into a tizzy because we have strayed, but takes His time, bears the insult and waits for the person to correct themselves.

Bearing the insult is part of the notion of another one of the middot, Nose Avon. Nose Avon means that God “forgives” sins, but literally the word nose means to carry or bear. He bears the burden of our thoughtlessness and greed and other sins the way the earth is bearing the burden of our overtaxation of its resources. We don’t immediately or perhaps ever feel the full weight of the effects of our wrongdoings. God bears those on His shoulders.

Why do we call out these 13 attributes of God so often? It is not only to remind ourselves of what God is like, but also to remind ourselves of how we should act, in imitation of God.

So if God is merciful and compassionate, we should be merciful and compassionate. And if God is long suffering and patient with our transgressions, then we, too, should be long suffering and patient with the wrongs done to us by others. If we are hurt by them, we are like God, the hurt king, and we should act like God in our response, not withholding our generosity but continuing to give and connect, and bearing the burden of the hurt upon ourselves patiently.

Our relationships with one another are full of goodness and joy, but they also always have some difficulties. We hurt each other and are, each in our way, difficult to be with. Part of what we learn from God is that being in relationship involves bearing that burden patiently, understanding that it is part of the deal, that since we are intertwined, another person’s difficulties are mine to bear and it is my job to bear them patiently, not to allow the wrongs to shut off the connection, but to be long suffering and to continue to let the love flow.

In Preparation for Rosh Hashanah: Thoughts on Hannah's Prayer

We Jews, when we think of prayer, we think of something fixed -- words written down for us in the siddur and times designated for us – the morning, the afternoon, the evening, shul on Shabbat. But there is also another type of prayer, one that is less talked about. It is the spontaneous prayer of the heart in moments of intense need or joy.

This is the prayer of Hannah (I Samuel 1), and indeed the type of prayer we hear throughout the Tanakh (think Yaakov in his terror before he meets a brother who he thinks wants to kill him). Hannah is a suffering soul, sad and bitter and lonely. Years have gone by and she still has no child, though her co-wife does. Each year, when the family travels to Shiloh to bring sacrifices, she is reminded anew of what is missing and of the pain of being a childless woman. What is her response to this suffering? She goes to the sanctuary and cries out to God in her distress.

She is sad and so she turns to God. What do we do when we are sad? Do we turn to prayer in this way, try to find solace in pouring out our hearts to the Eternal Ear, to the One who will always listen? The Piasetzner Rebbe recommends just this. He says that moments of intense emotion, whether sadness or joy, anxiety or fear, these moments are openings of the soul – opportunities to access our soul and connect to God in a real way that is normally blocked to us.

And it also feels good. It feels good not because our prayers are always answered. They aren’t. Hannah’s is indeed answered; she goes on to have the child, Shmuel. But the text is very specific in saying that even before she became pregnant, immediately when she left the sanctuary after her encounter with God, paneha lo hayu lah od, literally, “she no longer had the same face.” She was changed in some way, less sad and lonely, full of optimism and also, I imagine, full of a sense of the presence of God. Whether or not our prayers are answered, if we pray earnestly in these moments – from the depths of our hearts and souls – if we can really cry and pour out our sorrows, no matter how small—then we will feel better, not because the situation that is bothering us is necessarily resolved, but because we have connected to God; we feel heard; we feel connected; we are no longer alone.

On Rosh Hashanah we will read Hannah’s story. We will read her story in the midst of long days of prayer. As we prepare for these days, we can practice opening our hearts like Hannah, learning to turn to God in all types of moments – when we feel embarrassed and ashamed, proud and capable, insecure and unsure. We go through so many emotional states in a day, triggered by little events in our lives or just by the shifting clouds of our emotions. Each of these states is an opportunity to connect to God in prayer, to learn to actually cry in prayer like Hannah, to feel the connection and know that we are not alone.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Parashat Ki Tetze: On Yibum and Other People's Honor

The mitzvah of yibum in this week’s parsha has something to teach us about the ego.

The Torah tells us that if there are two brothers and one dies, married but without having any children, then the other brother must marry the dead brother’s wife and the first child they have together is considered the dead brother’s and continues his name. Indeed the point of this mitzvah is so that “his name may not be blotted out in Israel.”

In other words, this mitzvah is about doing something for the sake of someone else’s name, for the sake of another person’s honor and reputation in the world. How often do we actually do an act whose whole purpose is to increase the honor of someone else?

If, however, the live brother decides that he does not wish to marry his dead brother’s wife, then a ritual is performed freeing him from this obligation, a ritual in which the woman removes his shoe and spits in his face. From then on his family is known as beit halutz hana’al, “the house of the removed shoe.”

So basically because he didn’t care about his brother’s “name,” he loses his own name. There is a deep truth here: when we don’t care about the honor of our fellow we actually do ourselves a dishonor. The ego makes us think that honor is a zero sum game – the more someone else has, the less I have. But in practice, what ends up happening is that honor multiplies – the more you give it out to others, the more you have yourself. As Pirke Avot says, Eizehu mekhubad? Hamekhabed et habriyot. Who is considered honorable? One who honors others.

We get honor ourselves by giving honor. We lose it by withholding it or not generously bestowing it.

It sounds so simple but in practice it is quite hard. We feel innately that honor will only come to us if we are somehow above others, if we show ourselves to be better, smarter, more humble . . . than the next person. And so we try to show off our good parts and point out the faults of our fellows. But what often happens is that this smallness of mind and heart in ourselves only makes us look (and feel) bad. The people we most admire in this world are the ones who are able to hand out honor and compliments and good vibes to those around them, not the ones who make it known how smart or successful they are.

The mitzvah of yibum encourages us to change our thinking about honor: to look, not for ways to increase our own honor, but to actually think about how we might increase the honor of others.

Yehi k’vod chaverkha chaviv alekha keshelkha. “The honor of your friend should be as dear to you as your own.”

Friday, September 9, 2016

Parashat Shoftim: Appointing Judges for the Self

Shoftim veshotrim titen likha bekhol she’arekha. Appoint for yourself judges and enforcers in all your gates.
Though the literal meaning refers to the creation of a judicial system in society, there is a Hasidic reading which understands this command as referring to the inner workings of each individual.

Appoint for yourself judges and enforcers at all your gates. Watch yourself. And don’t let those judges take bribes – don’t be bribed by the evil inclination. But stand firm in judging each choice you make with care. Don’t just slide along according to your habit or natural inclination or the normal way of society, but evaluate what really is right in a situation. Be your own judge and choose thoughts and actions based on this judgment.

This does not mean one should engage in the type of extreme self-judgment that a lot of us suffer from. On the contrary, what it means to set up a judge ahead of time is that one is consciously making choices about both thought and action and not giving credence to that inner critic which is often on the side of the evil inclination, tearing us down so that we will not have the confidence to act in the world. It means creating a little bit of distance, the appropriate distance of a judge so that one does not get carried away by the emotions of self deprecation or insecurity but can see the situation more clearly. We are, most of all, judging the side of us that weighs us down, judging it in order to allow for the light of our true divine spark.

To judge and to enforce is another way of saying: you have choices in a situation; make the right choice. This week in my Mussar group, we have been studying the concept of choice in life. It is also especially relevant to this time of year. We are not talking here about the type of judgment that leads to a heavy heart, but on the contrary the type of judgment that leads one to a feeling of freedom based on the clarity of insight that one has choices in life; we are not stuck or tied to our depressive or stressed way of life, but we are capable of choosing differently; this type of judgment leads to a light, free heart, full of the optimism of freedom and possibility.

May we learn to judge wisely.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Parashat Re'eh: Help for the Lost

We often get lost in life. Lost in thought. Lost in our priorities – confused about what is important and what to pay attention to. Lost in a whirl of stress and details without clearly feeling or seeing the underlying meaning and purpose.

Two words struck me in this week’s parsha: uvo tidbakun. “And to Him you should attach yourself (Deut 13:5).” Attach yourself. Don’t move to the right or to the left. Stick to Him. He will be your compass. Don’t get lost in all the nonsense that surrounds you. Some of that nonsense is important, to be sure, and important in the very pursuit of sticking to God, but all of it needs that infusion of basic purpose. To do the dishes with a sense of purpose is different than to do the dishes in a harried, irritated way. Uvo tidbakun. Let the purpose of serving God infuse your every moment and direct you.

It’s a matter of holiness and purpose, a matter of keeping a sense of God’s presence in your mind as you go through the day. You are a creature with a divine spark and also a divine purpose. Stick to those notions and don’t let go, no matter the traffic or the appointments or the sudden children’s illness that interrupt your schedule. Though it all, stick to God, stick to your sense of a divine purpose and the holiness of your life and work, even in its details.

The Sefat Emet says that the month of Elul (which we are about to begin) is a time to realign ourselves with our basic divine purpose in life, to remind ourselves that Ani Ledodi -- I am for my Beloved (God) and I am really ONLY for my Beloved. Yes, during the rest of the year we need to be involved in many things, but during the month of Elul, we plug back in and remind ourselves that all the details are connected to one purpose. Everything else fades away.

May we work to feel this complete attachment and this clarity and may it truly elevate our everyday living and liberate us from stress.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Parashat Ekev: What was Hard about the Manna

Why is the man (manna) that we ate in the desert viewed as a nisayon, a test or a challenge? What was so hard about eating food that God provided each day?

I think the key to the challenge lies in the description of the man as a substance asher lo yadata, “which you didn’t know,” and, the Torah goes on to say, “which your ancestors didn’t know” either.

What was difficult about the man experience, what made it a nisayon, is that it was new, unfamiliar, something no one had ever encountered before.

New things are hard for us. The children started school this week and the first week is always a bit stressful. Taking a new job, entering a new school, moving to a new city, even driving to a new place can be a challenge.

Why? I think part of it is that new experiences make us feel insecure. We don’t know for sure the outcome. When we enter a new situation, the burning question is: will it work out? Will I make friends in this new place? Will I have enough to eat? Will I have enough time to do the work? Will I be successful? When we have been in that situation before, we know from past experience that it does work out and so we can relax. But in a new situation, we doubt—maybe that road doesn’t actually go to that place; maybe I can’t do this work -- we worry, we lack trust.

For the Israelites in the desert, the man was a challenge because they were used to normal food – you grow it, you fish it, you hunt it, you buy it from someone else who did one of those things. And then you cook it and eat it and you can rely on it to sustain you. But this new thing that appears with the morning dew – can it be relied on in the same way? Will it nourish us in the same way, help our children grow, keep us properly nourished? How do we know it will work out? How do we know it will continue, keep coming each morning, when we have no historical knowledge to rely on and we are not involved in the planting? How do we know that all will be well?

How do we ever know? The truth is that even in normal situations, which are not “new” to us, change happens and we cannot really rely on the predictability and stability of life remaining static. We took a vacation this year next to a river in West Virginia and I was struck by the constancy of the river flow. The water, the current, is always moving – sometimes slower, sometimes faster – but always moving. Change, new things, are actually the norm.

So how do we approach the river of life? How do we encounter the changes, the new situations? They are indeed a nisayon, a challenge, and I think a challenge that asks us, like the Israelites in the desert, to continually develop a greater level of bitahon, trust in God. Trust is the antidote to insecurity; trust provides the balance to ride through the rapids. It is a moment of complete relaxation; the ground will hold us; we do not need to struggle and fight to make it happen; we can trust that each morning we will wake up and find the man, find what we need in this world. In a new situation, we may not know how things will work out, but trusting means having faith that they will work out in the way that they are meant to work out and we can relax and do our best, not out of a sense of frenzied anxiety or insecurity, but out of a sense of joy and trust that it is right to do our part and the world is in good hands.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Parashat VaEthanan: On Places of Refuge

Among many other remarkable parts of this week’s parsha (including the Shma and the second recounting of the Ten Commandments), the Torah reports that Moshe took the time to designate three Cities of Refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan. Moshe has just told the people that he begged to go into the land but was not allowed to do so. Since he cannot cross the Jordan, he took the opportunity to do the mitzvah of separating and designating at least these three Cities of Refuge on this side of the border.

What are the Arei Miklat, the Cities of Refuge? They were 6 levitical cities designated for the absorption and protection of unintentional murderers. Someone who killed another person accidentally could run to these cities and receive sanctuary so that blood avengers from the victim’s family could not pursue them.

The Torah mentions these cities of refuge on a number of occasions, here and in Parashat Masei and again later in Devarim. Here they seem particularly highlighted as something important to Moshe, something he felt he needed to take part in despite his inability to enter the land, an act he needed to perform in order to ensure the proper functioning of Israelite society in the land.

Why are these cities so important?

I think they represent the importance of mercy and forgiveness in society. From the perspective of the sinner, they represent in spatial terms what the High Holiday season represents in time – a place where we can admit we are, by nature, flawed, and have hurt others irreparably, and can nonetheless receive absolution and forgiveness. We need such sanctuaries in life in order to continue to function. Otherwise the weight of needing to be perfect would stop us from ever acting at all. We need to know that as long as we have good intentions, even if we end up hurting people and doing the wrong thing, there is a place we can go to be absolved, there is a sanctuary, a safe haven, a place of refuge which will hold us until we have the strength to act again (actually for the murderer in the City of Refuge, it was until the High Priest died). Without such a pocket of assurance in life, we would be paralyzed by fear of misaction.

And from the perspective of the goel hadam, the family blood avenger, this space is equally important. We are all both sinners and avengers. We hurt others and are ourselves (or our family members) the victims of others. The question that comes up this season is not just: what will we do with our own impossible imperfections but also: what will we do with that of others around us? How will we learn to forgive and to let go, not to take revenge, not to hold a grudge in our hearts for all the little misdeeds of our fellows. This is a difficult emotional task and I think Moshe understood its importance in creating those Cities of Refuge. Those cities represent the end of a cycle of violence. They represent the ability to say: Yes, he hurt me, but it will end here. I will not carry this grudge into the next generation and perpetuate the hatred and ill-will. I will let it go at the borders of the City of Refuge. Why? Not just for the sake of the perpetrator, who needs our mercy, but also for my own sake – for the sake of the sanity of those who are hurt. Revenge eats a person up inside. On top of the injury itself, we end up hurting ourselves with layers of hatred and mean-spiritedness. The City of Refuge teaches release.

As we approach the month of Elul, with its call to repentance and forgiveness, may we feel the power of the Cities of Refuge, both as a place to rest our weary flawed selves as sinners and as a place to let go and forgive those who have hurt us.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Parashat Hukat: Can the Small Contain the Large?

Can something small contain something large? Can a small amount of space contain a large number of people, beyond the normal capacity of the space?

Famously, this was said to be the case for the Temple in Jerusalem. “People, when standing, would be crowded, and when bowing down, would have plenty of room.” The space somehow expanded to meet the needs of the crowd.

This theme comes up in this week’s parsha, too. The people are thirsty and complain to Moshe and Aharon. God tells Moshe to get the rod and gather the people and speak to the rock. Moshe gets the rod, and, the Torah tells us, when he and Aharon go to gather the people, they gather the entire congregation in front of this one rock. Rashi comments: “This is one of the places where the small contains the large.” In other words, even though the space around the rock was small, it miraculously accommodated the entire people of Israel.

The ability of the small to contain the large is a miracle, and I would like to believe that it is possible in all areas of life. I would like to believe that it is possible to fit more guests around the dining room table than you had anticipated, that the food and the space and our ability to interact and be social are all larger than they seemed. I would like to believe especially that time can expand, that even when there are more tasks, they will somehow fit into the time we have to do them, that our stress in the face of seemingly endless tasks is a kind of faithlessness and could be replaced by a mindset that does not see the limitations of a small box but trusts in the expansiveness of the widening Temple floor.

Sometimes, of course, we do hit limits, physical limits of time and fatigue and yes, space, and surely these also play their role; they force us to make our priorities clear in deciding what we will spend our limited resources on and they also keep us humble, reminding us of our finitude and mortality and very limited capacity in relation to the Endless One.

And yet, at the same time, there is a touch of the divine in all of us and in everything around us and so there is also a sense of infinitude, of endless capacity in the world as we know it. We certainly have an endless capacity for love, and I think it is often out of this endless flow of love that we do feel an inkling of this sense of space or time expanding, the sense that actually all is really possible with faith, that there is no reason a small container cannot contain a large amount, that all those imagined limits are false. Though hard-nosed realism is necessary in this physical world of ours, there is also a place, and especially a religious place, for broad-minded dreaming and I wish I had more of it.

I think the Israelites, too, could have used more of it. The desert experience was an experience of endless time and space in one regard, but also an experience of severe physical limitations with very limited food and water resources. Their constant complaints were an expression of their lack of faith that these limitations could be overcome, that the God who created and inhabited the endless desert could certainly eke out of the limited physical environment a great abundance of food and water, that what seemed scarce need not be so if one had faith.

On Shabbat we are touched by both of these sensations at once. On the one hand, we have a sense of our own limitations; we are no longer productive creatures in the world, but exist in a world created by someone else and so very small and limited ourselves. And on the other hand, it is a time that is considered me’eyn olam haba, “like the world to come.” We are privileged to move beyond our weekday limitations and touch the world of infinity and eternity.

May we feel the reality of this limitless infinity around us and really believe that the small can contain the large.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Parashat Shelakh: We Can't Do It Alone

How did the two “good” spies, Yehoshua and Kalev, manage to escape the fate of the other 10? We are all constantly confronted with choices, places where we have to decide whether we are going to go along with the “10,” with the dominant culture, with our peers, with whatever the prevailing wisdom is. And our children are constantly confronted by these choices, too. How do we stand strong on those occasions where the right thing is not to follow the crowd and how do we help our children stand strong? Yehoshua and Kalev each has a strategy to teach.

Yehoshua carries God with him wherever he goes. The Torah says that Moshe, prior to sending him off on the mission, changed his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua. Rashi explains that Moshe was praying on his behalf Yah yoshiakha me’atzat meraglim. “May God save you (playing on Yehoshua’s name) from the counsel of the spies.” It isn’t that Yehoshua was a much stronger or wiser person than the others. What saved him was that he had Moshe’s divine blessing with him. He carried in his name, wherever he went, a reminder of God’s help. He didn’t do it alone. We often feel that the challenges we face in life are beyond us, but if we admit this and ask God to stay with us and help us through it, we can do more than we thought we could. Yehoshua came through because he was never alone.

We should note that here it is Moshe who prays on behalf of Yehoshua, his younger assistant. The goal is not just to feel that God assists us but to learn to spread that blessing around us, to pray that others, too, feel God’s aid and protection.

Kalev does not receive this assistance from Moshe -- sometimes in life it doesn't just come to us -- but he goes about getting it for himself, also from an older generation. When the Torah uses the singular vayavo to describe the spies’ entrance to Hevron, Rashi explains that Kalev came alone to this city of ancestors and laid himself across the graves of the patriarchs and prayed for assistance in not succumbing to the dominant spies’ plans. Once again, Kalev knew that he could not fight the battle alone. He was perhaps no stronger or wiser than the others, but there was one difference – he knew when to ask for help, he knew that this was a moment of difficulty for him and prayed for assistance.

Assistance from ancestors is not something we talk much about, but I think that many of us feel it daily, feel how we carry our deceased parents and grandparents around inside our hearts and can rely on them for wisdom, counsel, and most of all, strength to persevere. We also have our communal ancestors to rely on. Perhaps this is why we start the Amidah with them – Elokei Avraham, . . . -- because we know we need help to pray, to open our mouths and hearts, and we turn to their strength and their example to guide us as we begin. When we walk through life, too, we can at any moment tap into their strength. We can feel their blood running through our veins and know once again that we are not alone.

May God and our ancestors help each of us be strong in the face of our particular pressures.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Parashat Beha'aolotekha: Two Thoughts

Two points strike me about the parsha this year:

1) God cares about hurt feelings. This week’s parsha begins with instructions to Aharon on lighting the menorah. Rashi says that the reason these instructions are juxtaposed to the description of the tribal chieftains’ gifts to the Tabernacle in last week’s parsha is that Aharon was feeling bad about those gifts. Aharon saw how all the tribes except his, the tribe of Levi, had brought gifts and he felt insecure about his place – why hadn’t he brought gifts, too, like all the other chieftains? God saw his hurt and came to comfort him and tell him – look at what a special gift you have – you are the one who will light the menorah each day! You have a special place with Me and My Tabernacle.

God cares about our very human vulnerabilities and insecurities, those small feelings of hurt which come up all the time for all of us. God cares, and, since we are God’s agents on this earth, we need to care, too, to pay attention to the one who might feel left out or insecure in a particular situation and make sure they know that they are wanted and that they play a special part in the group effort of bringing God’s presence down to earth.

2) To be a true leader is to spread the wealth. Eldad and Medad are found prophesying in an unauthorized way within the camp and Yehoshua wishes to have them imprisoned. Moshe’s reaction is: If only the whole nation were prophets! Moshe truly desires for others to receive God’s spirit. He does not need to hold the Torah or hold God to himself but wants everyone to have a part. This may be part of what it means when it says, a few pesukim later, that he is the most humble person on this earth. To be humble is to recognize that we do not own truth; we do not own greatness or Torah or wisdom, that they are gifts to be shared by all. To be humble is not to be threatened, but to rejoice at others’ success in these endeavors because we are all part of the same team, God’s team.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Parashat Naso and Hitlamdut: Learning from Everyone

Hitlamdut -- taking a stance of continual openness to learning from everyone and everything around you. This is a mussar concept I have been thinking about based on the Tikkun Middot Program curriculum of Rabbi David Jaffe and the work of 20th century mussar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe.

According to Rabbi Wolbe, hitlamdut is the starting point for all personal change. One must be open to learning, open to changing, think of oneself not as a finished product but primarily as a continual learner, open to what texts, people and life experiences have to teach you. This means that we admit that we are not perfect and do not yet know it all and never will but are forever being taught by life.

One example that is given in the Torah of this stance is from this week’s parsha. Rashi explains that the reason that the nazir – the Nazirite who takes special vows of ascetic sanctity – comes after the sotah – the woman who is accused of adultery – in our parsha is that the Nazirite learns from the experience of the sotah. He looks at her and thinks how he can avoid falling into such a trap and vows to stay away from anything, like wine, which might lead him in that direction.

This is a form of negative learning and we have plenty of opportunities to do it, to look around us and say – hey, I don’t want to end up like that person, not out of a stance of arrogance but out of a stance of humility – the knowledge that we are all essentially the same and therefore I, too, am capable of falling into that trap and need to learn how not to.

In Pirke Avot, which we just completed, Ben Zoma also famously tells us that if you want to be wise, the way to do so is to learn from every person. He does not say to learn from every wise person, but from every person. Every person in this world has something to teach us if we can see it and are open to it. I think often what stops us from learning from others is judgment on the one hand and a kind of insecurity on the other. We either think we are better than them or we think we are worse. Either way, we close ourselves from learning, either because we think they have nothing to teach us or because we feel threatened by their goodness. We see the beautiful way they live and we feel small in comparison and shut ourselves off from learning or growing. To take a stance of hitlamdut is to understand that we are all in the same boat, all struggling with similar issues so that we can help each other learn to live.

When I looked back on my encounters with others in the past few days, I found I could learn something from many people (including children) – it was as if they were all sent to be role models for me in different areas of life which I find difficult. The generosity of one and the calm and sense of sanctity of another and the simple practice of davening before anything else in the morning of another and strangely, in another friend, the ability to ask for favors in a way that includes others and makes them feel intimate. If I can take a stance of hitlamdut, then I begin to see each person as an angel sent to enlighten me in some way.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Parashat Emor: On Wholeness

In this week’s parsha, the same word is used to describe the physical requirements for an animal to be sacrificed, tamim, and the nature of the 7 weeks we count between Pesach and Shavuot at this time of year – temimot. In relation to the animal, the word means something like “unblemished” or “perfect,” and in relation to the weeks it means “complete” -- count the full 7 weeks and no less.

What is the connection between these two uses of the same word in the same parsha? Perhaps the point is to emphasize wholeness. What one needs to be presentable to God – as a sacrifice, as a priest (also discussed in this week’s parsha) and as a person about to receive the Torah on Shavuot – what one needs is primarily wholeness. Just as the sacrifice and the priest may not be missing any limbs, so any person, in preparation for Shavuot, should try to be whole-hearted, not to leave any piece of oneself behind, not to be distracted and half-hearted or divided in one’s commitments, but to bring one's total self into service.

That is the nature of the sacrifice – it is a total gift to God, which, because it comes at some cost, requires some “sacrifice” on the part of the giver and therefore shows his total commitment and devotion.

Are we as whole-hearted and committed, as tamim, as we could be? We live in a world where distraction and multi-tasking are the norm so that we often feel pulled in many directions at once. I think it would be a relief to feel that all of this whirling active life is somehow tied together in one single pursuit, that we are, under it all, tamim – pure and simple and whole-hearted – in our most fundamental commitment to God.

Amidst all this play on the word tamim, there is another similar word which appears – tamid -- eternal or always, referring to the ner tamid, the light that burned continuously (or at least from night to night) in the Tabernacle. Perhaps there is a connection here, too – what it means to be tamim, “whole-hearted,” is also to be tamid – constant and reliable, never wavering, steady and committed, "whole," in one's devotion.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

On Love: Divine and Human (for Parashat Kedoshim)

What does it mean to love God?

We talked about this question this week in my Tefillah Workshops in relation to the second line of the Shma, ve’ahavta et Hashem elokekha, the command to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.

One theme that emerged from these conversations is that true, lasting love involves dedication and steadfastness through thick and thin. Rabbi Akiva says: bekhol middah umiddah shehu moded lekha, with every measure that He metes out to you, whether a measure of good fortune or a measure of suffering – whatever you receive, you will remain loyal, or, as some of us thought, whatever you receive you will use as an opportunity for loving God. Bekhol -- with everything. It is all part of the relationship – the good, the bad and the ugly. To love God means to stick with Him through it all, through hard times and good times, through periods of clarity and faith as well through periods of anxiety and doubt.

And also with every piece of our selves will we love God –bekhol levavekha, with both the good and the evil inclinations, goes one interpretation. We bring it all into service of God because to love God with steadfastness also, on some level, means to love ourselves with steadfastness – to hold all pieces of ourselves in kindness, not to reject any piece but to bring it all into service, to stick with ourselves through all of our changing states of mind with compassion and constancy.

And coming to this week’s parsha, there is the corollary in relation to other people. Here is the other big ve’ahvta in Judaism -- ve’aahavta lere’akha kamokha, Love your neighbor as yourself. As yourself. Learn to be steadfast in relation to yourself and you will learn to love others in the same full embrace, to forgive them their failures and inadequacies and annoyances and live with them through their troubled times. Be a good friend to yourself and be a good friend to others – be like Ruth who stuck by her mother-in-law. To love is to be steadfast.

As if to complete the circle, the love your neighbor pasuk ends with Ani Hashem , “I am the Lord.” It is the steadfast love of God – both our sense of the constancy of His love for us as well as our own attempt to be loyal in return – it is this bedrock love that stands behind our divine –like ability to love ourselves and each other with the same steadfastness. To love is to be like God, loyal and steadfast and forever giving, to tap into the flow of hesed that continually keeps the world alive.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Pesach: Celebrating both the Slavery and the Freedom

What seems strange about Pesach is that we actually commemorate the hardship as well as the redemption.

On Purim there are no sad symbols. We just feast and laugh. On Sukkot we sit out in our sukkahs and remember the protection God gave the Israelites in the desert and shake the lulav in celebration of a bountiful harvest. We don’t walk around in the heat to get a sense of the hardship of the desert. Tisha B’av is a day set aside to remember the tragedies.

But Pesach, what is unique about Pesach, is that we mix the two – we eat maror, bitter herbs, together with our matzah and our festive meal. We dip our karpas vegetables into tears. We take out a bit of wine to remember the slain Egyptians. It is a holiday that somehow includes the bitterness and the difficulties within the celebration of redemption. As my father was fond of reminding us, the matzah itself is a double symbol; it is both lehem oni, “bread of affliction,” or poor person’s bread, and also bread of freedom, a symbol of the blink of an eye speed with which we left Egypt, with no time to let our bread rise. Freedom and suffering are linked in this holiday, and the Seder is intended to somehow evoke both for us at the very same moment.

The Sefat Emet explains that on Pesach, part of what we are celebrating is not just the redemption, but also the exile and the slavery itself. What we are saying is that we are thankful for all of it. We understand that it is all part of God’s plan – as seen in God’s prediction to Abraham – that there was some need for the slavery to happen in preparation for the worship of God, and so the difficulties also become for us somehow a source of joy. This is a joy that comes from the knowledge that God intends it all for our benefit. The maror, too, now gives us joy, as we feel and accept that bitterness, too, has its place, has its role to play.

The sages say that we are obligated to give thanks for bad tidings as well as for good tidings, to acknowledge that they all come from the same source and that we don’t really know what is good and what is bad for us in the long run.

Many of us have had the experience that a difficult life event has helped us grow. On Pesach, we look back on our national history and thank God for all of it – for the slavery as well as for the freedom, for the tears and for the songs, and they all become part of our celebration.

It is always easier to do this global thankfulness in hindsight. Now, looking back, we see that it was all for the best. Someone once told me that this is why God told Moshe that he could only see God from the back. We can only recognize the pattern when we look back in history. In the present of our difficulties, we have to just trust that gam zu letovah, this, too, is for the best.

On Pesach, through our memory of both slavery and freedom, we learn to embrace all of life as part of God’s gift to us.

On Pesach and Being Redeemed: If You Think It, It Will Be So

In my Albany Bet Midrash a few years ago, as part of an examination of the concept of geulah, “redemption,” one woman articulated that she felt that she personally was unworthy of being redeemed.

On some level, many of us feel this same unworthiness in relation to redemption. We don’t expect it and can’t quite imagine it for ourselves because we do not, or do not yet, feel worthy. I think it is precisely to counter this obstacle to participation in redemption that the Haggadah emphasizes inclusiveness and lack of exclusivity in relation to redemption.

We are not required to be very wise in order to enter Pesach. The Haggadah makes it clear that the wise and knowledgeable do not in any way deserve redemption more than others. “Even if we were all wise . . . .. it is still an obligation to tell the story.”

The inclusion of 4 different sons again makes this point clear. This Seder is not just for the wise and the virtuous but for the wicked and the simple and ignorant as well.

Now the wicked son is indeed dismissed. He is the one person who is told that “if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.” But precisely through his dismissal, we learn for what reason one is excluded and for what reasons one is not excluded. The wicked son is not excluded for his wickedness, but rather because he excludes himself. He phrases his question in the “you” formula, as if he already does not see himself in the group.

The one obstacle to inclusion in the process of redemption is an inability to imagine oneself as being redeemed. There are no other obstacles. We are not being judged here for whether or not we are worthy. The task is to imagine ourselves as capable of redemption and in so imagining, we become worthy.

Rabbi David Silber points out that the very same pasuk which we use to dismiss the wicked son is also used later to prove the obligation to imagine oneself as having left Egypt [hayav adam lirot et atzmo]. The pasuk says, ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li, “for this purpose God has done this for me.” In relation to the wicked son, we say, li velo lo, “for me and not for him” because that is his problem – that he cannot imagine himself as being redeemed and so he isn’t. Later in the Haggadah, we repeat this pasuk, this time as a reminder to all participants that all it takes to be redeemed is the ability to imagine yourself as li, as the “for me” for whom God wrought redemption. All it takes to be redeemed is thinking of yourself as worthy of redemption.

Neither virtue nor knowledge nor wisdom is the criterion for redemption. On some level, we are none of us worthy and on some level, we are all of us worthy. There are no distinctions made at the Seder table. We are in it together. All that is required is the ability to imagine that indeed it is possible, that at this moment we can be redeemed. If you think it, it makes it so.

The Sefat Emet notes a contradiction in the Haggadah. On the one hand, we say that we are obligated lirot et atzmo, “to see yourself” as if you left Egypt. On the other hand, a few lines later, we say that God did not just redeem out ancestors, but actually redeemed us. Which is it – did God actually redeem us or is it just that we are imagining that He redeemed us? The Sefat Emet answers that it is by imagining that we come to actual redemption. If we think of ourselves as redeemed, then we actually are redeemed. Redemption is in our hands, or rather, in our minds. If we think it, it becomes true.

We are all worthy of redemption. May we be capable of thinking of ourselves as worthy and thereby become redeemed this Pesach.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Pre-Pesach Thought about Work and Joy

Ivdu et Hashem BeSimchah. “Serve God with joy” (Ps 100).

I would add: And it’s all service of God.

That is the key. How can we approach even the most mundane and burdensome of tasks (like cleaning the refrigerator before Pesach) with joy? By turning it into Avodat Hashem, service of God.

When a burdensome task feels meaningless, then it is even more difficult and onerous. If, while we are cooking a meal for our families, we think: what’s the point? It will be gone in a minute and then there will be another meal tomorrow, we are creating a situation of just plain avodah, of work without meaning. If, on the other hand, we think as we are cooking: This, too, is avodat Hashem, service of God, for I am imitating God, who is constantly providing food for others, and I am sustaining the family that God has put in my charge, if we think this, then we elevate the activity to be true avodat Hashem.

And we are happier. We do it besimchah, with joy, because what is better, what is higher, what is more fulfilling, than doing the work of the Holy One? We suddenly feel that we are part of something larger than ourselves, playing our small part of service in something large and meaningful.

On Pesach, we leave Egypt and the meaningless and depressing avodah of Pharaoh, and what we achieve is not so much freedom as it is a new kind of avodah, avodat Hashem, the elevating service of God. There is no life without work and obligation. Work and service are what give our lives meaning and purpose. The point is not to escape the work, but to turn it all into avodat Hashem, to elevate it so that we can do it with true simchah.

The heavy work burden associated with preparing for Pesach, which has often been wryly associated with the slavery of Egypt, is perhaps a test-case for this new approach to avodah. Is it still just onerous, meaningless work, or can it become avodat Hashem, meaningful work done besimchah because it is of service to a higher purpose?

These ideas emerged from discussions in my new Tefillah Workshop in Atlanta. Thank you to all who contributed.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Parashat Pekudei: Honoring the Completion

This week the people finish building the Mishkan (Tabernacle). They bring all of the parts they have built to Moshe and he looks at all of it and blesses them.

As the Sefat Emet and others point out, this act of finishing and then looking at the product and blessing parallels the creation of the world. Indeed, the same verb, a rather uncommon one, is used for finishing in both cases – vayikhal. In both cases, work was done and then proclaimed to be finished and blessed. In the creation of the world, what follows this first completion of work is Shabbat.

I think there is something important to be learned here about marking the finishing of things. I don’t think we do this often enough. I know for myself there is a tendency to consider it an unimportant, almost conceited act to celebrate an act of completion. And also a waste of time -- there are other tasks yet to be accomplished and we are always rushing on to the next project.

Not taking the time to note a completion is a form of greed and grasping, I now realize. It is as if we are saying “this is not enough.” It is never enough for us. We always have to do more, accomplish more. It is like eating one food while thinking about what food comes next, never taking the time to appreciate what you have, always looking for more. Yes, ambition is helpful, and striving is a positive thing, but the lesson of completion is the lesson of Shabbat – there is also a time to be done and to notice that we are done and celebrate it.

At the heart of the celebration of completion is not pride but appreciation, appreciation for the beautiful entirety of a thing like the Mishkan, and gratitude that God has granted us the strength and time to reach this completion. We don’t want to just throw out our work and move on, but to honor it.

This week I will finish my first masekhet (tractate) of gemara ever in my life, through the Daf Yomi program. I feel excited by it, but I had been pushing those feelings down, telling myself it is just ego that makes me want to celebrate. The fact is, though, that the tradition does celebrate such completions formally with a siyum and there is a lesson in these celebrations. We need to stop and honor the completion, as an act not of conceit but on the contrary, of humility and gratitude – how thankful we are to have, with God’s help, reached this day. May we all celebrate many such completions!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Parashat Vayakhel: On Shabbat, Fire, and Blessings that We Don't Earn

The parsha starts with Shabbat, and there is one example of the type of work one may not do on Shabbat: Do not kindle fire.

Now this prohibition was the source of a famous disagreement between the Karaites (who did not accept the Oral Law) and the rabbis. The Karaites claimed that, because of this prohibition against fire on Shabbat, Jews were required to sit in the dark on Friday night, without the benefit of light or fire. The rabbis, on the other hand, instituted the lighting of candles before Shabbat precisely for this reason – since it is not the enjoyment of fire but its creation that is prohibited according to them, light should be kindled prior to Shabbat so that one may have its benefit on that night.

There is something very significant about this distinction between the lighting of fire and its enjoyment. The parallel case is the manna. Manna did not fall on Shabbat, but on Friday the Israelites would gather twice as much manna, and unlike other days, it would not decay over night but be available for consumption on Shabbat. What is prohibited on Shabbat is thus not the enjoyment of labor, but its active doing.

Separating the labor involved in producing a benefit and the benefit itself is part of the message of Shabbat. We make the mistake of thinking that we only receive what we deserve, that there is some quid pro quo in life – we work and therefore we eat. We gather wood and light it and therefore have fire. If we did not work and did not light the wood, there would be no food and no fire.

This is true to some extent, and that is why we have the 6 work days. But to some extent it is also not true and this is the message of Shabbat: Not everything we receive comes to us because we deserve it. Some of it is simply a gift, a blessing from above, which we did absolutely nothing to earn.

This message leads to two conclusions. The first is gratitude. We didn’t earn our food or our light or our children or our many blessings; we acknowledge that they are gifts and feel an overflow of gratitude toward God. Second, there is some relief here; the pressure to actually deserve our gifts, to earn them, is intense and gnawing. Once we acknowledge that free gifts are the very nature of creation and the universe, we can relax into them, accept them as an overflow of love from above, and give out to those around us a similar unearned overflow. As God has blessed us for no reason, so we bless others for no reason.

This Shabbat, feel the power of eating without working, the notion of not needing to deserve what we are given.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Parashat Ki Tisa: The Answer to the Golden Calf

I imagine the Israelites down on the bottom of the mountain waiting for Moshe to come down. He is late and they feel abandoned and insecure. They are not yet sure of their relationship with God and their physical representative is gone. They are confused and scared, anxious and impatient. They build the Golden Calf out of this free floating anxiety, this uncertainty, just as we would open the refrigerator or buy something – anything to make us feel more grounded.

The answer to the Golden Calf is the Tabernacle because the answer to all such anxiety and insecurity is divine Presence. And the Tabernacle is Presence writ large, presence that physically accompanies them wherever they go, presence that resides among them, presence that reminds them that God will never abandon them.

What they didn’t know down at the bottom of the mountain, what they didn’t yet realize and needed to learn, was that God was always already with them, always available to them. In that moment of confusion and uncertainty, when they were filled with doubts and fears, when they thought this was the end – in that very moment they could have accessed God. There was no need for Moshe, no need for a Calf, no need for some chocolate. It was simply a matter of tapping in to the divine presence that already surrounded them.

Sometimes when I am feeling lonely or sad or worried or stressed, I say to myself: Shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid. “I place God before me always,” and it makes me smile. I suddenly feel embraced and accompanied. The world is indeed an unpredictable, confusing and worrying place. People come late. Things don’t happen the way we expect them to. But the answer is not a Golden Calf, but the Tabernacle, the knowledge that God always resides among us.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Parashat Tetzaveh: To Carry the People

Normally when you walk into an institution, the officials of that institution are wearing badges with their own names on it. Not so Aharon, the High Priest.

On his front, Aharon wore the hoshen, the breastplate, with its 12 stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. So too for his shoulders – on each shoulder he wore a stone with half of the names of the tribes, 6 on each. Why? In each case, the Torah says it is in order that Aharon should “carry” the names with him, on his shoulders and in his heart. The shoulders – that is where a burden is placed, where we “ carry” our tension, where we store our worries and concerns. And the heart – that is where we put those we hold dearest. So Aharon is being asked to carry all of Israel as his loved ones, carry their worries on his own shoulders and concern for them in his own heart.

Aharon also wore a badge on his forehead. This one said kodesh lashem, “Sanctified to God.”

What is the difference between these badges and the one with one’s own name on it? Why didn’t Aharon wear a badge that said “Aharon, the High Priest”? Because Aharon as a High Priest had a function to play and that function was not related to him personally. There is a great danger here in having special appointees, the priests, raised above the rest of the nation – the danger that they think it is all about them. “We are an elite class.” “Look at how important I am with my special clothing.”

No, no. The high priest must always remember that he functions primarily as a vessel – a channel through which God can reach the people and the people can reach God. And so he contains on his body reminders of this function – yes, he is sanctified, set aside, holy, but sanctified Lashem, “for God,” not for his own ego. And as such, his primary concern is not with himself but with those whom he represents in front of God, those for whom he must continually keep the links open to heaven. He is a channel through which the concerns and needs of those 12 heavy stones (plus 2) flow upward in one direction, and the lofty Spirit of the Lord flows downward in the other. He is, like the angels above, a mesharet, a “servant” of the people and of God. The point is not his own honor, but to be of service.

The High Priest was a channel and in some way, that is the goal for each of us – to let go of our own egos enough so that we, too, can become of service, so that we, too, can become conduits connecting heaven and earth.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Parashat Terumah: Where We Can Still Hear God's Voice

In this week’s parsha, we read about the mishkan, the building of a dwelling place for God on this earth. And we feel a twinge of envy – they had access to God; God dwelled in their midst; we are left alone to wander the world, searching for His Presence.

But certain features of the mishkan give me hope for today. Look at the aron, the ark. It is arguably the most important part of the mishkan – being the first to be mentioned here, the only item in the Holy of Holies, and most importantly, the site of God’s voice when it spoke to Moshe.

Now what is in the aron? The tablets, the Torah itself. In other words, access to God’s voice, to God’s continued messages to us today, is present in the Torah. As if to emphasize this point of the Torah’s eternal ability to speak to us, there is a special mitzvah when it comes to the poles used to carry the aron – they are not allowed to be removed from their rings. Lo yasuru mimenu. Rashi adds: le’olam, forever. The poles, symbols of mobility, the ability to carry the aron and its Torah wherever we go, must always remain attached. The kli yakar relates this verse to one in Isaiah, which says in similar language: lo yamushu mipikha umipi zarekha . . . ad olam (59:21). They, i.e. the words of Torah, should not leave your mouth and the mouth of your descendants forever. We carry the Torah around in our mouths and, like the poles of the aron, we never detach. And so, through the Torah, we do still have access to God’s living voice.

But it is not just the Torah that we need in order to hear God’s voice. God did not speak directly out of the aron, but rather spoke from between the two keruvim (cherubim) that stood affixed to the cover of the aron. And these two keruvim were arranged in a very particular way. Their faces are said to be turned doubly – turned toward one another and turned toward the cover, the aron itself ( Exodus 25:21). What is required in order to hear God is a double orientation – it is not enough to be oriented solely toward the Torah, the aron itself. It is not enough to study Torah alone. God’s message reveals itself through our double encounter with the Torah and with one another. The Torah is continually revealed through our joint encounter with the Torah and with each other.

The image is of a hevruta, a learning partnership. I once attended a teacher’s workshop on the hevruta method taught by Orit Kent and Allison Cook and the visual they used was of a triangle. On one side of the triangle is one person, on the other another person, and on the third is the Torah. They emphasized that the key to a good hevruta is that no corner gets lost, that all three voices are respected and heard and integrated. Looking back now, the keruvim above the ark also created a kind of triangle, and this triangle became a channel, a conduit for God’s voice on earth.

None of us as individuals can contain the Torah or its truth. It is only revealed through our joint efforts and our genuine engagement with one another. The keruvim stood, facing one another and also bent over, with wings spread above them, in a gesture of humility and protection in relation to the ark. And out of this space of humility, oriented not proudly outward, but toward each other, came the voice of God on earth.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Parashat Mishptaim: To Do and To Hear at the Same Time

Can you rub your belly and pat your head at the same time?

Can you notice the beautiful view outside and at the same time pay attention to the road as you are driving? Can you really listen to your child’s story while at the same time making dinner?

Can you do and can you listen at the same time? In this week’s parsha, the Israelites say na’aseh venishma, “We will do and we will hear/understand/obey.” This statement is usually considered remarkable because of the order of verbs – first they say they will do God’s commandments and then they say they will hear what those commandments are!

What seems equally remarkable to me about this phrase is how it implies that these two actions can be done simultaneously. The Israelites are promising to do and to listen at the same time. They are promising to be at one and the same moment busy and involved in the world and all its bustle of activity and at the same time able to “hear” God’s voice, to listen for the places He is speaking and to notice His presence. Now that is a feat!

It’s one thing to be a monk, removed from the world, and to be able to hear God. It’s another to be part of the world and still hear that voice. It’s one thing to have clarity and faith and peace and a sense of divine wonder and awe while one is sitting quietly and meditating. It’s another to do so in the midst of a traffic jam when one is late for an important meeting.

Paulo Coehlo in The Alchemist tells a story about a boy seeking happiness. The boy goes to the castle of a wise man. In this castle are many wonders and beauties. The wise man gives him a spoon with a few drops of oil in it and tells him to go explore the castle while never dropping the oil. The boy goes all over the castle and returns, without having seen any of the wonders because he is so busy worrying about the oil in the spoon. The wise man reminds him that he has missed out on all the beauty. The boy explores again, but this time he is so taken by the wonders that he drops the oil. The wise man tells him that the secret to happiness is being able to see the wonders while also guarding the oil.

How can we do both – take care of the oil, the little everyday tasks that are the stuff of life, all the details and arrangements and deadlines -- how can we be diligent about these and at the same time not lose sight of the wonders? How can we both “do” and “listen” at the same time?

I often think to myself – I will take time to listen to the birds and see the flowers and really see the miracle of the children in front of me when I have down time, tomorrow, when I am well rested and life calms down. The problem is that tomorrow is the same rush and bustle as today and life goes by. The trick is to be able to see God’s wonders right now, while in the very act of doing and living this crazy busy life, to be able “to do” and “to hear” at the very same moment. Na’aseh VeNishma. May we hear God amidst the whirl of activity.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Parashat Yitro: Anokhi

There is a saying among the classical rabbis that God actually gave us God’s own self when He gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Ana Nafshi Ketavit Yehavit. Literally: “ I My self have written and given.” In other words: I have written My own self, My essence, down into words and that is what I am giving you here in the Torah. I have given you the gift of Me.

The rabbis derive this saying by reading the first word of the 10 Commandments, the word Anokhi (“I"), as a notorikon, a word which stands for other words, with each of its letters representing the first letter of a different word, together forming the sentence: Ana Nafshi Ketavit Yehavit. “I myself have written and given. “ In a way, this is a simple “spelling” out of what the word anokhi literally means – “I” – God put His “I” into the Torah.

At the parsha level, this reading makes sense of what is going on – what we have here is not just an ordinary passing on of laws. That could have been done by a simple public reading of the law – by Moshe, or better yet, by local hired professional readers and explicators of law. What we have here is not just a receiving of law, but a receiving of God Himself. The point seems obvious, but so obvious that we might miss it --- This giving of the 10 Commandments is a REVELATION of God. With all its preparations and with all its thunder and lightning, it is a live experience of God in the world.

So it was. And so it is. The Torah is today our live experience of God in the world. The gift of Torah is the gift of God Himself. He wrote Himself down and gave Himself to us. These precious words are our entry point, no, more than our entry point, they are in some way God Himself in the form of words.

The study of Torah brings continual revelation into the world.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Parashat Beshallah: God is All Around Us

God is all around us. To our right, to our left, behind, before and above. In this week’s parsha, God stations Himself, in the form of a pillar of cloud/fire, before us to lead us, and then behind us, to protect us. Then, as we walk through the split waters of the Red Sea, the waters themselves surround us, forming walls to our right and to our left. We are surrounded and protected, nurtured and guided. We only need to take some time to feel this Presence, feel how it buoys us when we are down, leads us forward when we stumble, protects us in times of fear and danger, and most of all, accompanies us through thick and thin.

Below are two related quotes that I find inspiring:

From Sha’ar haKavvanah, attributed to Azriel of Gerona (13th century), translated by Daniel Matt in The Essential Kabbalah :
All around you – in every corner and on every side – is light. Turn to your right, and you will find shining light; turn to your left, splendor, a radiant light. Between them, up above, the light of the Presence. Surrounding that, the light of life. Above it all, a crown of light.

From the Bedtime Shma:
Michael is at my right hand.
Gabriel, at my left.
In front of me, Uriel,
Behind me, Raphael,
And Above my head is the Presence of God.

And back to our parsha:
Vehamayim lahem homah meyiminam umismolam. And the waters were for them a wall on their right side and on their left.

May we always feel accompanied.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Parashat Va'era: How We Are Like Pharaoh

In what ways are we like Pharaoh?

There is some truth out there that keeps knocking at our door – plague after plague, sign after sign– and we stubbornly refuse to hear it. And this stubbornness, this refusal to change, to shift our views and actions based on experience, this refusal to “let them go,” to let go of whatever it is we are too tightly holding on to, this stuckness is the source of our own suffering. Pharaoh creates his own demise through his deafness and blindness. And so do we all. We are too confident to hear, too scared to let go, too busy to hear and see. Our hearts have become too heavy, too habituated to be able to shift gears. And so we suffer. We suffer because we can’t let go of our old habits, can’t admit that we were wrong, can’t hear the emerging truth that beckons.

Again and again, the call comes. It is a determined call, hoping beyond hope to be heard once and for all. And mostly, we are not like Moshe, turning toward the burning bush. Mostly, we are like Pharaoh, unable to turn aside, mired in the comfort of our castles.

The story of the exodus is not just a story about the Israelites. It is also a story about Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s many attempts to let go. He lets them go and then changes his mind. He lets them go and then runs after them. This, too, is familiar to us – we achieve momentary freedom, we do heed the call, we do let go, but only to return quickly to our confident postures of stuckness.

What voice, what truth, what signs are we not heeding? Where are we being stubborn? What do we need to let go of in order to shift, to achieve redemption, to free ourselves from suffering and thereby also free others?