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.