Friday, December 15, 2017

For Chanukah: On Just Doing Your Best

You do your best and God will do the rest. That is what my students told me was the message of a story we read last week about candle lighting.

The story goes like this: Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, a famous miracle worker, one Friday afternoon notices that his daughter is sad and asks her what is wrong. This itself is a beautiful moment, a moment of compassion and caring and seeing the suffering of another (perhaps explaining why this rabbi had access to miracles). The daughter explains that she mistook the bottle of vinegar for the bottle of oil and lit the Shabbos candles with vinegar. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa responds: What do you care? The One who told the oil burn will also tell the vinegar burn. And so it was. The vinegar burned through the night and the following day and they took light from it for havdalah.

My students explained that what Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is saying here is that if you have done your best to do the right thing and fulfill God’s command, you don’t have to worry. You can set your mind at ease. God will take care of the rest.

I once heard a similar explanation of the Chanukah miracle. On that first day, before the people knew that this little jug of oil would last all 8 days until more could be made, on that first day, what did they think? Surely they were sad at the prospect of the light only lasting a short time, but they did not let this thought deter them. They simply did their best . . . and indeed God took care of the rest.

The same could be said of the military miracle. What hope did those Maccabee fighters really have to win? They just did their best . . . and God took care of the rest.

What about us? What are we sad about? Sometimes life is overwhelming and we feel saddened and anxious at the prospect that we will not be able to succeed in our goals. Sometimes we look at a task and think it is too hard, too impossible, requires too many resources (time especially!), etc . . . And this makes us sad in a deep existential way. The task is beyond us.

Indeed it probably is beyond us. But all we are expected to do is do our best, to make the choices that seem right in our very human minds at the moment, commit ourselves to be of service, and not worry about anything else. The results are not our business. God will decide. We are only tasked to play our part.

I don’t advise switching oil for vinegar this Chanukah, but it is good to keep in mind that such mistakes are human, and if we do them with a full heart of good intention, we need not be sad. All we can do is try our best to do what is right. The rest is up to the One who told the oil to burn.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Parashat Vayishlach: Shifting towards Peace

One kind act can shift the course of history.

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov hears that Esav is approaching with 400 men. Was Esav planning an aggressive attack? The Torah doesn’t tell us but Yaakov certainly thinks so.

The possible destruction of the future Jewish people is headed off by what? By Yaakov’s overflowing generous gifts to Esav.
(Of course there was also the prayer, which surely had an effect, both on Yaakov’s mindset and on the reality, and there was also his simultaneous preparation for war – security comes to those who are prepared. But those topics are for another drasha).

Yaakov shifts the course of history how? By a few she-goats. He takes the initiative here to change the dynamic of his relationship with his brother. Previously Yaakov had created a competitive grabby environment -- a sense of scarcity -- squabbling over birthright and blessing so that his brother was left with nothing left to “take” but Yaakov’s life. But now Yaakov takes a new approach. Instead of grabbiness, he is generous and giving, sending forth gift after gift.

And the result? The result is in kind. When you are grabby, others are grabby back. When you are generous, others are generous back. Esav is surprisingly magnanimous: “I have enough, my brother,” he says (note the term of affection or at least connection!), “let what you have remain yours.” If you have removed yourself from the race, I, too, remove myself and become your brother once again, with no aim of violence.

Sometimes that is all it takes – one kind act. One kind act that sets off a wave of other kind acts. We have all experienced this. Someone lets you in on the road and you are inspired to do the same for others. Someone greets you with a smile and it changes how you treat others for the rest of the day.

Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to (or literally, “drags” with it) another mitzvah. Normally we think this phrase refers to one person – I do one mitzvah and in doing so, that mitzvah leads me to do the next one. This too is true – I have set myself up on a good path. But here, in this week’s parsha, we can also see that this expression works externally, describing how mitzvot can grow from one person to another. Yaakov’s kind deed leads to Esav’s kind deed. We influence each other.

Yaakov knows from experience that you get back whatever you give out to this world. Not always from the same person, but it comes back to you eventually. He tricked his father concerning the younger and the older child and so he, too, was tricked by Lavan concerning the younger and the older child – tricked into marrying the wrong sister. So Yaakov understands – be careful how you act; it will come back at you.

In sending out gifts to Esav, he “reimagines” and restarts his relationship with his brother on new footing. What he is sending out into the world is no longer competition and tricks but generosity and gifts, freely given gifts with no expectation of a return. What he gets in return is also a gift – peace and forgiveness and the biggest freely given gift of all, life itself.

We often feel stuck in a certain mood or dynamic. Sometimes all it takes is the energy – considerable energy – to do something different, to do one small kind act. This one act has power beyond itself, sending ripples of kindness through the world, shifting things so that all those destructive forces of the “400 men” coming at us in this world turn loving and generous themselves. Maybe one kind act can save us all.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Parashat Vayetze: The Power of Awareness

אכן יש ה' במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי
Behold, God is in this place and I, I did not know.

Behold God is here, right now, and I am not aware of it. God is in the moment of traffic in the car and God is in the meal I share with my husband and children and God is in the moment of nervousness before I begin a class and in the moments of learning I share with my students and in the moment of sadness as I watch my child cry. And God is here with me now as I write these words. In each moment, in every moment God is present.

The question for us, as for our father Yaakov, is: Do we see Him, do we feel Him, do we remember to be awake to His presence? Yaakov slept and then “awoke” to this realization. We go through life alternately asleep and awake to the knowing of this truth. It is one of those things we once knew well– a déjà vu, perhaps a piece of the Torah we learned and forgot before we were born – it is something we know and forget, know and forget continuously.

When we know it, though, how powerful we are! We feel how strongly our life blood pulses with the divine -- we are capable of anything; we can open closed doors. Yaakov declares after awakening that this here is the “gate to heaven.” Shaar Hashamayim. As the Psalmist says, Pithu li shaarei tzedek. Open for me the gates of righteousness. Yaakov has done so. To feel God’s presence is to feel that this gate to heaven is open; it is to feel the flow.

In the next scene Yaakov manages to remove the heavy rock atop the well, a rock that normally takes a village to remove. The angels of God that went up and down the ladder in his dream symbolize the energy of this divine life force, this awareness and connection to God. Yaakov is capable of the impossible because he keeps himself constantly connected to this energy source. No wonder he has 12 children while his ancestors struggle for 2! Life flows through him.

Yes, when we know God is with us, our outlook is different. We are confident and capable because we are connected to the divine energy flow, connected and centered. Someone who works in a prison once told me that when she prays each morning it is for her as if she has plugged herself into an electric outlet -- she is recharged and energized, fortified with faith and a sense of the divine for whatever lies ahead. Yaakov begins his journey – which won’t be an easy one – with just such a charge.

Behold, God is in this place, and I, I did not know. How often we do not know, do we not see. May we remember to ask in every situation – where is God in this place? Can I feel His presence? Because surely God is in this place, too, here, right now, among us.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

On Sarah and Equanimity (Hishtavut)

We all have good days and bad days; some days we are confident and generous and upbeat and other days we are irritable and insecure and unkind. We are inconsistent; our moods shift with the winds and the situations around us.

Not so Sarah, at least according to the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet explains the famous Rashi on the first pasuk of our parsha about the years of Sarah’s life. The pasuk strangely says they were “100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of Sarah’s life.” Rashi explains the redundancy of the word “years” after each number as a sign that Sarah was the same when she was 100 as 20 and the same at 20 as at 7. On the words “the years of Sarah’s life,” Rashi says, kulan shavin letovah. “They were all equivalent in goodness. “

Sarah was consistent in her goodness. She didn’t have bad days and good days, bad years and good years. The Sefat Emet calls this the quality of hishtavut, “equanimity,” from the same root, shaveh, equal, as the word shavin in the above Rashi. They were all “equal” in goodness, says the Sefat Emet, means that whatever happened to her – whether hunger or barrenness or abduction by a king, and many difficult things did happen to her – whatever happened, she was the same, solid as a rock, steady and consistent in her goodness, imperturbable and unshakable.

This image of Sarah stands in contrast to the image of Avraham as a walker and mover – lekh lekha¬ was not a one time command but a continual injunction to keep moving and growing over the years, as he does both physically and spiritually throughout these parshiyyot. Perhaps Sarah was the stable rock amidst all this change? When the angels ask Avraham where his wife is, he pointedly says Hineh ba’ohel, “Behold in the tent,“ as if to emphasize this contrast; Avraham is running around bringing people in, giving instructions, getting cattle, . . . but Sarah stays put in the tent, a staked rooted place in a life of mobility.

We often celebrate the qualities of growth in Avraham. This Shabbat I invite us to celebrate the qualities of equanimity and stability in Sarah, to learn to be more like a rock or a mountain, to simply watch the weather change, to stand still and steadfast through the difficult moments of life – both moments of external difficulty and moments of internal difficulty when we are overcome by negative feelings – to simply stand fast and bear them all with equanimity and inner peace.

Peace and equanimity come to those with faith. There is the faith of running and changing and believing that you have a role to play, and there is the faith that helps you accept what is happening around you and within you with equanimity -- stable and unchanging, knowing you are not the primary agent of change and that things will happen as they should in their own time.
Up and down, young and old, good and bad. Through it all Sarah stood, unmoving, consistent in her years – kulan shavin letovah. In her memory, may we be blessed with this quality.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur: Let's Talk About Failure

Yom Kippur is an opportunity to talk about failure. This week wasn’t a disaster, but it was one of those weeks where nothing went exactly right and most of the time it was my fault in some way, as a parent and a teacher and a human being. And so I ended up with this gnawing sense of imperfection and a deep awareness of my own limitations.

This is a good way to enter Yom Kippur and I feel comforted by the day’s looming presence. On Yom Kippur I will remind myself, in the company of others and always speaking in the plural, that ashamnu – we have all sinned. I am not alone in my imperfections.

Not alone. In fact, we come together through our imperfections. It is in those messy places that we feel most human and vulnerable and in need of one another and it is in those times of imperfection that we can most fully relate to the problems others are suffering. In my failure, I connect. I feel the pain of failure of a thousand others.

I am also comforted on Yom Kippur by God’s steadfast forgiveness. Here. too, my awareness of my limitations actually opens up the avenue to connection. I need You, I say. I can’t do this alone. I am well aware of my flawed humanity and require Your presence and Your assistance to live this life. Anu amekha ve’atah elokenu. We are Your nation and You are our God. We are Your children and You are our parent. On Yom Kippur we achieve a level of intimacy and connection with God which we can only reach for the rest of the year. Why? Because we are sinners, we are failures, and we know it.

Part of what happens with failure is that, in breaking down the ego, it leaves us open to connect to something larger than ourselves, both others around us and God. The lesson of failure is to let go of the self, to let go of the need for constant perfection and our ideal image of who we want to be, to let go of all that, to simply do our best and feel how God and other humans fill in the gap. Perfection is a barrier to intimacy and to teamwork; awareness of our imperfections opens us up to both.
This week I am celebrating my failures. May God forgive us all our shortcomings.

Yom Kippur: On Judgment: God's and Ours

If we want God to be compassionate to us, not to judge us too harshly but to slide over our transgressions, we need to act that way to those around us.

We usually think of the opposite dynamic – that we learn from God how to be compassionate. And of course, this is also true. We repeat over and over the 13 attributes of divine mercy on Yom Kippur, reminding ourselves of God’s essentially forgiving nature partly in order to remind ourselves that God is a model for us – God is forgiving; therefore we should be forgiving.

At the same time, we can also think of it in the reverse – not that we learn from God, but that, as it were, God learns from us, or rather, that we bring into the world particular divine traits through our actions; we draw down God’s mercy by acting merciful ourselves. We create, through our attitudes toward each other, the kind of divine presence we want to exist in this world. Do we want to live in the presence of a harsh judgmental God or a forgiving, compassionate God?

We make that choice by the way we treat others. It is so easy to judge. I was walking down the street the other day and a dog on someone’s lawn started barking at me. The owner was outside and tried to calm the dog down but did not apologize to me for the fright. This is a “pet” peeve of mine – that dog owners worry more about their dogs than the people that they affect. But as I walked away with this judgment in mind, I thought – if it were me, would I want God to judge me in this harsh way, simply for not apologizing for my dog? It was likely that the owner’s attempt to calm his dog was in fact an act of kindness toward me and he simply was too intent on this act to be able to apologize. Read in this way, I felt suddenly gracious, appreciative and sympathetic toward the owner. This, after all, is how I want God to treat me, for I know that there are so many occasions on which I should have apologized or given thanks and did not do so.

We talk about God moving from the chair of judgment to the chair of mercy. We need to help that happen by ourselves making similar choices – do we want to “sit in judgment” or decide to make a choice, to make a change, and move into the chair of mercy?

We have a thousand opportunities a day to make these choices. Sometimes it is a question of being dan lekaf zekhut, giving people the benefit of the doubt – we don’t have full information and should not be hoshed bekesherim, wrongly suspicious of the innocent. We don’t know so we should assume the best. Other times, we know or we think we know that something was amiss in the way someone else acted. Here, too, if we ask ourselves – how would I want to be treated by God in this situation, we will be able to find the motivation to move out of the chair of judgment and be a partner with God in drawing down the attribute of Mercy into this world.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Thoughts: A Collection

This year I have taken some old and new ideas about Rosh Hashanah and compiled them into a short booklet that can be printed for the holiday.

Here is the link to this collection:

Feedback is always welcome, on both form and content.

Ketivah vehatimah tovah. A good new year to all.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and Parashat Ki Tetze

Underneath all the stuff, there is love.

In Houston, large swaths of the population have lost almost all of their worldly goods. It is hard to even imagine such a scenario – no clothes, no toiletries, no home, no bed, no computer, no lifetime of accumulated and beloved possessions.

Alongside images of these intense losses, we have watched acts of hesed, acts of love and kindness and bravery, often done by volunteers helping and rescuing total strangers. In our consumerist society, it feels as if the loss of all that stuff has somehow unearthed a renewed sense of connection and kinship.

Last Shabbat, in my Pirke Avot group we studied a line that my father used to repeat often – marbeh nekhasim, marbeh de’agah, the more possessions, the more worry. The more possessions, the more mental energy one needs to expend to protect them.

The Jewish tradition is not anti-material goods, but there is a sense that they sometimes interfere with seeing what really matters. One can easily become obsessed and anxious about material things to the point where the brain is no longer free.

In my Sefat Emet group this week, we read a beautiful piece about freedom. Spinning off on a passage in the parsha about tzaraat and remembering what Miriam suffered when we left Egypt, the Sefat Emet asserts that this notion of “remembering Egypt” means “remembering freedom” and that mitzvot in general are intended as good advice for how to be and remain free.

The examples he gives are material – we leave a corner of the field for the poor and give ma’aser and tzedaka all in order to learn not to become too attached to our wealth. This freedom must pervade everything we own, says the Sefat Emet, and so we put a mezuzah on the doors to our homes and tzitzit on our clothing, all to remind ourselves not to become too attached to these material things, and to instill a sense of freedom from the material.

The devastation in Houston is monumental and we cry with our fellows at their deep losses. Someone in my class said: you can either learn this freedom the hard way or the easy way. Let’s hope we are spared further lessons the hard way and remember in the rebuilding that, olam hesed yibaneh, the world is built on acts of loving kindness.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Parashat Ekev: Not Because We Deserve It

“If you are breathing, that is nature’s way of saying that you belong here. You are enough.” I saw this on a teacher website, something that a teacher said to his students every day as part of a breathing meditation.

I would adjust that to: If you are breathing, that is God’s way of saying that He loves you at this moment, just the way you are and He wants you to be alive and here.

The essential point is that you don’t have to deserve this love or this life. You are given your daily breath (and bread) as free gifts simply out of love.

Moshe emphasizes this point in this week’s parsha. He spends a long time talking about the people’s sins, not to make them feel guilty, but to make a different point --- God is giving you the gift of the land of Israel not because you deserve it, but because He loved your ancestors and He loves you. Again and again, Moshe says: lo betzidkatekha – not because of your merit or virtue or righteousness. On the contrary, he goes to lengths to show how from beginning to end, the people angered and rebelled against God. Why does he go to such lengths? To make the clarity of God’s love even stronger --- this is a love that is not based on merit. You don’t have to deserve this love and therefore you cannot lose it. You have already done all the terrible things you can do and He nonetheless stuck with you and is giving you the gift of the land.

Last week, the parsha started with a word that makes a similar point. The word used to describe Moshe’s prayer is va’ethanan. Rashi says this means that Moshe prayed for a matanat hinam, a free gift. Even though Moshe did have merits to rely on, he understood that when you appear before God, you ask for a free gift. That is God’s way.

It should be our way, too, both in relation to ourselves and others. We live in a society that values productivity above all else. The question in our minds is always – how productive have we been? What have we accomplished, gotten done, today. This is a fine question as long as it is not tied in any way to our sense of self-worth. We do not need to prove that we deserve to exist based on our productivity. We deserve to exist simply because God loves us. Life is a matanat hinam, a free gift.

And sometimes, if we feel that we have erred and done the wrong thing, even then we should know that there is still love out there for us, that in any case, the gifts that God bestows upon us daily, like the gift of the land, are lo betzidkatekha, not given for our righteousness. We are human and often not so righteous and God gives us these gifts anyway, simply out of love.

This attitude does not deter teshuva, return and repentance, but on the contrary, I suspect it is the first step to change. Self-doubt and a feeling of low self-esteem lead to inaction and depression. Change happens best in the protective climate of love.

We do not need to deserve this life. It is a free gift. We should recognize the steadfast divine love behind our every breath.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Parashat Vaethanan: God's Oneness and our Wholeness

Often in life, one feels some slight dissonance or discomfort, as if you are a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. There is your true self and then there is what you have to do to get through the day and they don’t always match up exactly. The world has expectations, institutions have ways of doing things and you are an individual making your way.

There is one place where a person never feels this discomfort – before God. In relation to God, we are always whole and always wholly ourselves. I think this is part of what we mean when we say in the Shma (in this week’s parsha) that one loves God with all of one’s heart and soul – before God, there is a capacity to be whole and whole-hearted in a way one cannot be anywhere else.
This feeling of wholeness is connected to the word ehad, one, which we say about God in the Shma. God is one and we are one with God somehow – or rather, we feel the oneness of the world and ourselves and a sense of completeness with God that we cannot feel elsewhere. There is a yearning quality to this feeling, as if we are longing for an earlier time or a later time when we indeed were/will be one with God, and, strangely, this sense of yearning makes us feel whole, complete, one.

Thinking this over clarified for me what idolatry is. Idolatry is the opposite of God because of its multiplicity. To worship multiple gods makes us feel divided – that sense of dissonance again. We are not sure whom to serve , whether the demands of work are the true god or our families or accomplishments. We feel divided by the demands of many gods because there is indeed still a tinge of idolatry in this world at all times. And it is precisely in the face of this dividedness, this sense of being pulled in a thousand directions, that we need to assert every day, not once but multiple times – Shma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad. Listen up – there is only one God. Go about your life, fulfill expectations, do your work, take care of your family, but somehow remember that it is all in service of God, not in service of other humans and their ideas of what you should do and not in service of your own ego with all its ambitious goals. Just God. Even as you go about your day, keep a piece of yourself pure and whole-hearted, connected to God and that sense of oneness.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Parashat Pinchas: The Unstuck Children of Sinners

Our lives, our choices are not completely determined by our parents’ paths and by our past. We each shape our own destinies. At every moment we have complete freedom to act in a fresh new way.

In this week’s parsha we find a few examples of this freedom. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah and Tirzah are the daughters of Tzolfehad, a man who “died for his own sin” (according to the rabbis, either for breaking the Sabbath or for trying to enter the land after the sin of the spies). The children of this “sinner” merit the highest mark of approval – God Himself says about their claim ken, “yes,” “correct.” As Rashi comments, “fortunate is one whose words the Holy One blessed be He agrees to.” These daughters were not tied to their father’s path of sin, but forged their own bright future.

As if to hammer in this point, the parsha includes mention of another set of children of a sinner as well, beney Korah, the children of Korah. In the list of descendants, the Torah takes the time to record that although Korah and his followers all were killed for their rebellion, “the children of Korah did not die.” Rashi explains that at the last moment, they had thoughts of teshuva, a change of heart, and therefore were not swallowed up with the rest of the sinners.

There they were, surrounded by rebels, all speaking the same angry rhetoric against Moshe. What strength of character it must have taken to even think a different thought, to imagine that those around them were wrong! To change one’s mind in such circumstances, to do teshuva, is the ultimate act of personal freedom, the assertion that our destinies are not predetermined by our surroundings or our history. We are at every moment free to change, to be a new type of person.

We often feel stuck in our old ways, our regular habits of thinking, our usual way of doing things. As we enter the three weeks of mourning and look forward to the coming of Elul and the High Holidays, we can begin the process of change by really taking in the full truth of its possibility. To really believe in teshuva, to really believe in change and the freedom to be different, is a powerful assertion of personal autonomy. We can be different. Our past does not determine who we can become. Each morning, each moment, we are born anew, fresh and free to choose our path. May we choose one to which the Holy One says ken.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Guest Blogger Medad Lytton on Parashat Chukat

In this week’s parsha, Moshe sends messengers to the king of Edom to request passage for Bnai Yisrael through the land of Edom. In his request, he states that Bnai Yisrael will not turn right or left until they cross Edom’s border. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that although Moshe’s intention was to say “until we come to the land,” he was afraid that the king of Edom would be reminded that Yaakov took the Bechor and Bracha from Esav which now enables Bnai Yisrael to inherit the land of Canaan. Even generations later, the tensions between Yaakov and Esav shine through the interactions between their descendants.

But this story is reminiscent of an interaction between Yaakov and Esav on an even deeper level. This incident eerily echoes an earlier portion of the Torah: parashat Vayishlach. Just as Yaakov sent messengers to his brother Esav as he reentered the land of Canaan, so too here, as Bnai Yisrael prepare to enter the land of Canaan, they send messengers to the nation of Edom, Esav’s descendants. Throughout these pesukim, the parallel to Yaakov’s messengers shines through. As in parashat Vayishlach, here in parashat Chukat the episode begins by stating in an almost formulaic phrase who sent messengers to whom.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו . . . כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֔ב

Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau . . . thus says your servant Jacob

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח מֹשֶׁ֧ה מַלְאָכִ֛ים מִקָּדֵ֖שׁ אֶל־מֶ֣לֶךְ אֱד֑וֹם כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ אָחִ֣יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel

` The similarity of these two passages goes beyond the phrasing; the content of the message is also similar. In both cases, Yaakov and Moshe recount their difficult experiences in Lavan’s house and Egypt respectively. Yaakov explains to Esav that he has been a stranger in the house of Lavan and Moshe recounts Bnai Yisrael’s parallel experience in Mitzrayim (these two experiences are almost explicitly compared in the Haggadah).

Not only is this an example of Maaseh Avot Siman Lebanim, “the actions of the forefathers is a sign for their descendants,” but there is a deeper significance to these parallels. The Torah through these parallels seeks to frame this interaction between Bnai Yisrael and Edom as the conflict between Yaakov and Esav, a conflict which is epitomized by the phrase Hakol kol Yaakov, Vehayadayim yeday Esav, “the voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav.” This verse can be interpreted as explaining the difference between Yaakov and Esav --Yaakov is a person who uses his voice while Esav uses his hands. Here in parashat Chukat we see these differences again. Moshe says (a bit strangely) to Edom --Vayishma Koleinu, "[Hashem] heard our voice." The King of Edom responds pen Bacherev eitzei licratecha, “lest with a sword I will come out to meet you.” Esav is still the person of the hand/sword and Yaakov a person of the voice.

The Torah is trying to teach us that Moshe’s message is not just a practical request for passage through the land. Moshe’s message is a way through which Bnai Yisrael can affirm their national identity. Before they can enter the land, Bnai Yisrael must define who they are as a nation. Historically, nationality has often been defined by contrast with an “other.” For instance Protestant Great Britain defined its national identity in the eighteenth century through a continual conflict with a Catholic France. Here Bnai Yisrael are defining themselves as a unique and chosen people of the voice as opposed to Edom, a people of the sword.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Parashat Bamidbar and Shavuot: Finding Your Place

In the vast, uncultivated desert, the Israelites had an orderly method of encampment and travel – three tribes on each of four sides, north, south, east and west, each group with its own representative flag, all surrounding the Tabernacle in the middle.

Sometimes we feel that we are floating in this world, that the world is large and chaotic and it is unclear what our place is. We feel lost in the desert.

This week’s parsha teaches that order and a sense of place in the universe come from our connection to God. If we place God in the center, if we are clear about this priority, then all else falls literally into place, ourselves included. We have a part to play in a larger scheme. We are no longer lost.

When we place God at the center, what happens is what happens in the beginning of Bamidbar – we count, we matter. Rashi says that it is a sign of God’s great love for us that He counts us all the time. We encircle Him, placing Him at the center, and He, in turn, gives us love and value – we matter in relation to God and once we know that, we feel secure in our place in the universe.

In less than a week we will be celebrating Shavuot, when we received the Torah. It strikes me that the encampment in the desert was a replication of the experience at Sinai. At Sinai, too, we surrounded God, at the foot of the mountain. It is as if the desert encampment was meant to continue that experience, to continue physically our sense of God at the center, first in an awesome revelation, and then in the daily travails of life.

The Sefat Emet says that at Sinai we each saw our own root in God and our own part in the Torah. We each understood that we have a part to play; we each felt the full weight of our own value; we counted.

The word for the census numbers is pekudim. This root also has the connotation of appointments or assignments. We were not just counted, but each given an assignment, each given a sense of our own worth in relation to God, a sense of our own part to play in the divine scheme, a sense of “place” so that the world no longer feels chaotic and random but ordered and purposeful.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Parashat Behar-Behukotai: On Harmful Speech and Awe of God

It is easy to hurt someone with words. We do it all the time, in subtle and unsubtle ways, pointing out how another person is lacking in comparison to us, showing up their ignorance or incompetence, commenting on the relationship between their suffering and their own responsibility for it, reminding them of some hurtful or shameful past. Sometimes the words just come out and we realize too late they could be hurtful in their implications. We didn’t really mean it, but we didn’t think it through properly. Other times there is some unconscious need to assert our own superiority, to say – you can’t do this right but I can – without actually saying those words.

One of the famous mitzvot in the first of this week’s parshiyyot is the prohibition against ona’at devarim – causing another person suffering through speech. This prohibition is linked to the shmita and yovel years and comes after an initial prohibition against ona’at mammon, exploiting someone’s weakness or ignorance monetarily by overcharging in a business transaction. The Talmud says that ona’at devarim is more severe than ona’at mamon; causing someone harm through words – though we do it more frequently – is actually worse than doing financial harm.

One proof of this greater severity is that the Torah adds with regard to ona’at devarim an extra phrase – veyareta me’elokekha. You should fear your Lord. Rashi on the pasuk explains that these types of actions may be unclear; the question is one of intention – did you intend harm through these words or not? Only God knows.

What we are getting at here is a deep link between our speech and our heart – between what we say to others and what we really believe about God’s place in the universe. Maybe it is not just that God is the judge of our intentions, but also that a sense of fear in God is actually the way we can control those intentions and ultimately the words that come out.

Yirat Elokim, a sense of fear or awe of God, may be the key to shaping both our hearts and our speech and moving them away from this place of ona’ah, harm to others. What drives us in the first place to say such things is our constant need to assert ourselves as superior to others. How do we get out of this mindset? By understanding our true place in the universe, by understanding God’s true place in the universe. A sense of awe involves cultivating an awareness of God’s Presence in every situation and every person that we meet. When we feel this deeply, then we feel that each person – ourselves as well as others – are all part of this vast universe of God, all playing our parts, all pieces of the divine. There is no superiority in this but a deep sense of belonging and kinship.

Shmita and Yovel – the seventh and fiftieth year rests for the land, and the return of the land to its original owner -- both teach the agricultural lesson of divine ownership of the land. They help us get out of the mindset of “mine” and “yours” and into the mindset of “God’s.” Similarly, the prohibitions against both ona’at mamon and ona’at devarim remind us to cultivate a sense of divine presence and awe in relation to every person we meet. This person and I are not “you” and “I” but both also “God’s,” not separate, but connected, not in competition, but both pieces of the divine. Feeling God’s awe in that moment of interaction means cultivating a sense of humility – I am always small in relation to God – a sense of humility that wards against any inclination to superiority. The question becomes not – how can I show that I am better than this person – but rather – how can I bring out the divine image in both of us? How can I treat this human encounter as a divine encounter?

In my Mussar group this week, we are working on yirah, awe or fear of God, and one woman pointed out that most of the other traits we have tackled – generosity, patience, compassion, . . – were interpersonal in nature whereas this one seems totally God-centered. She wondered whether there was some interpersonal side to awe as well. This week’s parsha answers that question by placing the phrase “You shall fear your God” right after the prohibition against harmful speech. How we think about God and the universe does affect how we interact with others and how we speak to others. Keeping God in mind is the answer to our natural inclination to superiority, the answer to our tendency to ona’at devarim. Awe is interpersonal.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Parashat Emor: On Declaring Holiness

Mikraei Kodesh – this is the term used in our parsha and throughout the Torah for holidays – days that are “called” holy, called holy by “you,” Israel. The power to proclaim holiness is given to human beings. We make the day holy by declaring it so and celebrating it with holiness (not working, kiddush, eating special meals, wearing special clothes, . . .) The day itself derives some holiness from God, surely, but it is our job to call out that holiness and bring it out into the daylight and the concrete world of action (and inaction). The rabbis go so far as to learn from this verse that God Himself cedes to the human court’s calendar decisions and declares in the heavenly courts only the dates decided down below by humans.

Mikraei Kodesh. It is our job to “call out” the holy in the world, to notice it and proclaim it. We are like the angels who “call” out to each other each morning: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” We also are “callers of holiness.”
What does it mean to be a “caller of holiness?” It means to notice with awe the divine sparks around us, to notice them in nature – in the simplest flower and the largest tree and the blow of the breeze through the leaves – and to notice them in each other, to really see that each person we encounter was created in the divine image, to uncover inside them that purity and sacredness of soul.

Shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid. I set God before me at all times. Abraham Joshua Heschel says that each human being is a shiviti, a reminder of God’s presence. We set God before us by seeing God in all that is around us, by calling out and drawing out the hidden holiness. We are “callers of holiness.”

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Uncovering the Gold Inside

A midrash, cited by Rashi, explains why tzara’at of the house is described as a kind of “gift” to the Israelites --- A person whose house is afflicted with tzara’at is required to break down the walls of her house; in doing so, she would unearth the gold and treasure hidden there by the previous Canaanite owners.

This is a metaphor for the struggle to live a holy life. We cover over who we really are inside. According to the rabbis, a person can get tzaraat for any of a number of sins --- arrogance, murder, sexual impropriety, theft, envy and most especially, gossip.

What does it mean to sin? How is a person, created in the divine image with a divine spark inside, capable of sinning? How? Only by forgetting who we are – by covering over that divine spark with walls, walls that become grimier and grimier the farther we get from that knowledge of who we really are. Sinning is a kind of forgetfulness, a covering over of our true selves.
And so what is the resolution? Break down the walls and see the gold inside – Remember who you are inside! Elokay neshama shenatata bi tehora hi – My God, the soul that you placed inside of me, it is pure! Yes, it is pure! Remember your goodness, remember your purity! All those actions you have been doing have been covering over that goodness with grime. Get rid of the grime and remember your basic goodness.

If we truly carried around with us this knowledge of our own goodness, if we thought of ourselves as pure, as treasures, as pieces of the divine, we would act differently in the world. Tempted to speak gossip, we would stop – we all know how speaking ill of another makes you feel dirty. It is not just a problem for the other you have spoken about – you have sullied yourself, betrayed your own true goodness.

Sometimes the forgetfulness is quite deep. Because of our actions -- because we do not act with dignity and care in the world-- we do not feel like “children of the king”; we feel like we are pathetic, struggling, unclean, a mess. That is why the Torah says – break down the dirty walls and get rid of them. Look deep inside. Remember that you are pure gold. You carry the divine inside you. Build a new house that reflects that knowledge.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

For Pesach: On Transformation

Transformation. At the heart of the Seder is the notion of change and transformation. From slavery to freedom. From idol worship to divine worship. From shame to praise. The Seder is a journey of transformation.

This transformation is not just a historical one that we recall and retell – our ancestors left Egypt. Rather, “in every generation, a person is obligated to see herself as if she went out of Egypt,” says the Haggadah. Each of us is meant to experience the leaving of Egypt each year, to experience our own transformation, our own journey out of the straits of our mental prisons into the openness and freedom of divine worship.

When we ask Mah Nishtanah halaylah hazeh?, what is different, or literally, “changed,” on this night, we look around and point at the external changes, the starkly different foods and ways of sitting and eating. But the changes should not just be external. These physical changes are a symbol of some other change that is meant to happen inside us. What is changed on this night? Most importantly – we are.

Now change is difficult and normally takes a long time. Around the High Holidays, we also try to change, to do teshuva, to “return” to God and the proper way of life, but at that time we spend a month and a half working on it. So what is this Seder night change – how can one be transformed in the course of one night?

This change is of a different sort; it is not the slow process change, but the sudden realization or awakening, the “Eureka” moment when we glimpse clearly the truth; it is not so much a gradual return home as it is a rebirth – one moment in the womb, the next, in the world; one moment in the dark, the next, bathing in the divine light of revelation.

Like the matzah dough, which becomes hametz if left too long before cooking, these changes are time-sensitive. We have to take a stance of alacrity, a readiness to leap at opportunity.

This leap-like transformation is spontaneous; it does not involve a well thought out process and an attempt to control oneself as on Yom Kippur, but on the contrary, it asks us to relinquish control, to let go of the sense that we control our own destiny and let God in.

God is the center actor throughout the Haggadah. Moshe’s name is famously absent, as is mention of any other form of human leadership. We do not say: “We left Egypt.” We say: “We were slaves and God took us out of Egypt.” We were idol worshippers and God brought us close to Him. God Himself makes these transformations. “Not through an angel. Not through a fiery angel. Not through a messenger.” “It was I,” God Himself, “I and no other.”

I once went to observe an AA meeting. A man got up and talked about the sudden realization that came to him one day, lying in a hospital bed totally bottomed out; what came to him at that moment was the realization that he was not capable of changing on his own, but that if he let go of that sense of control, God would help him change.

That is the realization we are to come to on the Seder night. Yes, at other points in the year, we do emphasize personal responsibility and taking control of our actions. Here, though, salvation-- sudden salvation and transformation -- comes not through our own might and our own human effort, but precisely through our ability to let go, to admit that we are not in control. Only at that moment of letting go do we let God in, are we truly open to an experience of giluy shechinah, of the transformative revelation of the divine Presence.

Sometimes I think we try too hard to change, that in the very effort we hold the reins so tight that we obstruct God from entering and helping us. The transformation on Pesach night is not so much something we do, but something we let happen; yes, we prepare, so that we are open and ready for it, like the Israelites with their belts girded, but in the end, at the time of the Seder, we have to let God do the transforming.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

For Pesach: On Questions and Awakening

We normally go through life not noticing. We are in a state of habit and automatic pilot, half asleep to the world around us.

Pesach is a holiday of awakening. Like the natural world coming to life in the spring – the trees budding, the birds singing and the animals emerging out of hibernation -- we, too, come to life out of our deep slumber of everyday living.

This is why questions play such an important role in the Seder. As the mussar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe points out (Allei Shor II, p. 394), questions are a way of awakening one’s soul, hitorerut nafshit, a way of stopping in one’s normal tracks and saying – wait, what is this exactly? What is going on?

And so we begin the Seder with the Mah Nishtanah, the prescribed 4 questions, and throughout the night we do things “in order that the children should ask.” Perhaps this does not just mean literally “children,” but also that naturally curious, inquisitive, and extremely present “child-like” side of ourselves. On this night, we are to be like children, seeing the world with their fresh wonder-filled eyes. Indeed, there is no answer to many of the strange things we do on this night other than “in order that the children should ask.” The whole purpose of the Seder is to help us enter this state of awakened questioning and noticing.

The gemara says that if one does not a have a child or a wife who can ask questions, then one should ask the questions oneself; even if two scholars are holding a seder together, they should still ask questions (Pesahim 116a). The point is not the answers. These two scholars have plenty of answers all year. The point is to get back to a place of questions, back to a place of wonderment and awe and curiosity; the world looks shiny and bright, and yes, very different, suddenly, in the light of this questioning stance.

Questions are the entry point to revelation. The Haggadah tells us that on this night the Israelites experienced a gilui shekhinah, “a divine revelation.” How do we re-enact that each year? By awakening ourselves through a stance of questioning, by kindling that place inside us that views the world with intense wonder and curiosity – how did that flower come to exist? What is bread really? What is bitterness? How did we get here? What is Egypt? Are we free? Suddenly the whole world is bathed in light and wonder; we sense God in every creation, in every action, big or small. Questions are an invitation to connection, an opening to the possibility of a response.

This awakened stance may also explain why we recite Hallel in this strange way, at night, which is unheard of normally, and without an official initial brachah announcing the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Hallel. As Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz explains, we are not here to fulfill a prescribed obligation to praise God; we are instead moved, spontaneously -- in the heat of this moment of intense awakening and revelation – to sing out loud “Halleluyah!” We sing because it is natural to sing in such a state of awakening; our experience of God’s graciousness and of our own good fortune and gratitude overwhelms us and comes pouring out of our mouths in song.

Pesach is not a holiday to be smart. It is a holiday to be alive and real and awake. As much preparation as there is until it arrives, in exactly the same measure should we be present and spontaneous when it comes, awake to revelation and wonder like the wide-eyed children around us. And perhaps, with this experience of one night of awakening, we will learn to be a little more awake every day.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In Memory of Salo Steper, z"l: Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei and Dedication

A dwelling place for God is created by sustained dedication and devotion.

Why does the Torah repeat the details of the building of the mishkan (Tabernacle) in our two parshiyyot after describing them in more or less the same way in Terumah and Tetzaveh?

Why? Because Terumah and Tetzaveh describe the instructions from God for the building of the mishkan whereas Vayakhel and Pekudei, our parshiyyot, describe the follow-through by the people of Israel, the actual carrying out of the project. Creating a space where God can dwell does not only involve careful plans, but also disciplined and devoted diligence in working through till the completion of the project.

The Torah gives us a window into the kind of energy that it takes to build such a dwelling place. It begins with enthusiasm – the people come toppling over each over (“men on top of women,” 35:22), bringing all the necessary materials “and more,” until Moshe has to go out and make an announcement to stop!

It begins with enthusiasm and it is carried through on details, as the Torah relates the crafting of each piece of equipment according to its precise specifications. This, too, is religious work, part of the dedication that, as with any relationship, creates a firm base for God to dwell with us.

Indeed all throughout, the work is done with God in mind. In Parashat Pekuei, the phrase ka’asher tziva Hashem et Moshe, “as God had commanded Moshe” is repeated numerous times. Each and every item was crafted with the intention of fulfilling God’s command, as an act of devotion.

It is not the walls or the materials or the divine plans that bring God into the Tabernacle, but this combination of enthusiasm, diligence and dedication to the relationship that create a space in which God’s presence is drawn down to earth.

Our shul in Albany, CBAJ, was such a space, and it was in large measure due to the dedication of certain individuals. One such individual, Salo Steper, z”l, passed away this week. He was like Betzalel, a builder of a dwelling place for God. He was dedicated in all those everyday detailed ways that make a shul holy – he was there from before sunrise teaching Daf Yomi, at all the minyanim through till Maariv at night and with some Torah videos afterwards, and on Shabbos, teaching Psalms before Shaharit and enthusiastically encouraging any other learning going on in the shul and always ready to share some Torah. He wasn’t flashy about his commitments; he was a quiet, behind the scenes staple that held the walls up for the rest of us, always with a sense of total dedication to God, ka’asher tziva Hashem et Moshe. There was a simple purity to his focus and devotion—it was all for God.

Surely now he is in the Tabernacle up high, enjoying the fruits of his labors by basking in the divine Presence which he helped to bring to earth each day he was on earth. The phrase ka’asher tziva Hashem et Moshe appears 18 times in Parashat Pekudei. Such is the reward for keeping the commandments with zeal and dedication in all their details – chai, eternal life. May his memory be a blessing for us all and in his merit, may we continue to feel God’s presence among us.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Parashat Ki Tisa: On Losing Faith

It is so easy to lose faith. And so difficult to maintain it, to keep steady in the face of difficulty and overwhelming negativity, to believe in God and basic goodness even when the world seems to be moving in the wrong direction.

Faithlessness and a lack of steadfastness. That is what sparked the first act of idolatry in history, the Golden Calf of this week’s parsha. The people had waited their time and Moshe was late. Had they been able to wait just one more day, they would not have sinned. But they lost faith. They could not remain steady in the face of uncertainty and a seemingly negative turn of events. They may have had some faith but their faith did not have strength or discipline. It was not a strong enough muscle to rely on.

The contrast to this faithlessness is Avraham. God promised Avraham that his descendants would be like the stars of the sky. But then he remained childless for many, many years, and finally, after having the promised child with Sarah, he was commanded to sacrifice him, yet another obstacle to the fulfillment of the promise. Like the children of Israel at Sinai after 40 days of waiting, Avraham should have lost faith; he should have given in to despair and impatience and given up on the God project entirely. Enough! The facts pointed in the direction of negativity and chaos. But Avraham, if nothing else, was steadfast and unbreakable in his faith. No matter the wait, not matter the delay, he trusted in God’s plan.

Things often seem contrary to a divine plan in our lives. The fall to despair in the face of a negative turn of events, the inability to stand strong and steadfast in our faith, this is indeed the first step to idolatry as it is an abandonment of God, an abandonment of the very basic belief that God runs this world with overflowing hesed or love.

Can we be adopt the stance of Avraham, to be patient and long-suffering no matter what comes our way? Can we develop this muscle of faith so that even when the road seems twisted, we walk confidently and with trust?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

For Purim II: The Little Acts of Connection that Redeem Us

Sometimes it is the little acts of decency that save us and that bring salvation to our world.
Two examples from our megillah:

1) (From the Sefat Emet): Mordecai goes to the palace every single day (bekhol yom vayom) for years on end to check on Esther’s well-being (2:11). It is partly in the merit of this daily habit of simple concern that the miracle unfolds; if Mordecai had not been in the palace courtyard daily as an insider, he would not have heard about Bigtan and Teresh, . . . Simple acts of caring and devotion, especially as they are repeated daily, weekly, and yearly are the stuff of salvation.

[I was sick this week with the flu and I feel acutely an appreciation for my family and friends who daily took care of me and “checked on me.” They brought redemption to the world.]

2) Esther tells the king about Bigtan and Teresh’s plot “in the name of Mordecai” (2:22). Later, it is the king’s midnight remembering of this act of Mordecai’s that begins the miraculous reversal of events that is the salvation of the Jews. Esther tells the king in the name of Mordecai and in so doing, she saves the Jews. Pirkei Avot 6:6 learns from here that kol ha’omer davar beshem omro mevi geulah la’olam. Whoever says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world. To cite your source, to be honest about where you got this idea from, this brings divine redemption into the world.

What do these two acts have in common? Connection beyond the self. Mordecai is concerned about Esther, tied to her well-being. Esther does not take credit for herself but cites her source, thus revealing that she knows she does not act alone, cannot take sole credit, but acts as part of a team. In both cases, they show that they do not think of themselves as single, solitary creatures, but are embedded in a network of connection.

The Sefat Emet notes that Haman originally declared that the Jews were am mefuzar umefurad, “a spread out and separated nation.” As a spread out and separated nation, we are indeed vulnerable. When Esther fasts in preparation for entreating the king, she says, lekh kenos et kol hayehudim, “go and gather all the Jews.” Esther knows that the key to turning this problem around is to get out of our natural sense of deep isolation and separation and come to a place of connection, to come to an understanding of ourselves as part of a larger integrated whole. On Purim we feel this connectedness and we remember that such connections are redemption in the making. Happy Purim to all!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

For Purim: This Year's Interpretation of "Ad Delo Yada"

[Please note: Many of the insights below are not my own, but came out in a discussion of ad delo yada in my Sefat Emet group.]

On Purim there is an obligation to get to a point of “not knowing” the difference between “blessed Mordecai” and “cursed Haman,” to no longer be able to distinguish between friend and foe, good and evil.

Why on Purim? The story of Purim itself has the opposite tone—it speaks with great clarity about enemies and friends, and good and evil, and highlights the power of acting on this moral clarity, as Mordecai and Esther do to great effect. The lead-up to the holiday—the reading of Parashat Zachor, with its eternal obligation to remember and eradicate the evil of Amalek—only adds to this mood of moral clarity.

So what is this “not knowing” business? We do know what is right and what is wrong and, if anything, the story seems to encourage us to act on it!

It is precisely in this place of great clarity that a seed of “not knowing” needs to be sown. Even when we are most certain—yes, precisely when we are most certain—we need a little humility about our “knowledge”; we need to be reminded that we are not gods, but human beings with limited and subjective vision and understanding. Too much certainty about who is good and who is bad is a dangerous thing in this world.

By moving outside of the frame of “good” and “bad,” Purim invites us to enter a space of non-judgment and non-blame, in reference to both ourselves and others. Some days, we spend so much energy worrying about who is right and who is wrong that we don’t really connect to anyone.

To let go of judgment is to allow for connection. When we judge, we create distance; when we let go of judgment, it no longer matters who is right—we are no longer focused on ideas of right and wrong, but on the very real person standing in front of us. As the Sufi poet Rumi writes, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” The field of non-judgment is indeed a meeting place, a place of connection.

And above all, Purim is the holiday of connection. We send mishloach manot ish lere’eihu¸ packages of food “one person to her fellow” and we eat and drink and hear the Megillah not alone, but joyously together.

In this political climate of deep divides, I, too, have been having great moral clarity about who is right and who is wrong, and I think we are in many ways obligated to act on those convictions. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to Purim, to taking the opportunity to let go of judgment for this one day, to learn a little humility and to remind myself to value love and connection over constant judgment.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Parashat Mishpatim: My Father's Torah on the Ger

My father spoke beautiful English with a heavy Polish/Yiddish/Russian/Israeli accent. He loved this country. He liked to say that this was the only country in the world where a poor immigrant-refugee like him could come and have his children educated in the highest institutions in the country.

In 2007, almost exactly 10 years ago, he gave a dvar torah about the Torah’s attitude to the ger, the “stranger.” At the end of his talk he said: “In Yiddish there is an expression: Yeder darshen darshen zich far zich. Every preacher preaches for himself. Once I asked the question of what attracted me to the Ibn Ezra’s analysis of ger shaar, the answer was obvious. I have lived in 6 countries and in 11 localities, not all of them voluntarily, and have been the recipient of good and bad treatment.”

In this week’s parsha, we hear about the ger twice. The first time, we are told not to oppress the ger because gerim heyitem be’eretz mitzrayim, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20). Rashi comments:“every use of the word ger refers to someone who is not born in that country, but rather comes from another country to live there,” i.e. an immigrant.

[Note: My father was a Rashi maven and in his dvar torah, he suggested that people talk to him at kiddush about the question of why Rashi defines ger here rather than several parshiyyot earlier, in Parashat Bo, where the term first appears. I have an idea of what he was thinking and I wish I could talk to him about it now.]

So ger refers to a person who comes to live here from another place. We know such people. And the Torah says not to hurt them because we, too, were once such people. We were immigrants; we were strangers; we were wanderers. Not just in Egypt, but throughout history. Our history is a history of foreignness. My father embodied this history in his own life. He called himself “a marginal man”; he felt that wherever he went, he was a little bit on the outside. This is a Jewish feeling and a feeling we are enjoined to remember, that sense of slight misfit, of insecurity.

And so, not once, but twice in this parsha, as well as multiple times in other parshiyyot, the Torah tells us: do not mistreat the immigrant in your midst. It is as if each commandment refers us back to another one of our own many wanderings. In the second instance in our parsha, the Torah goes even further in explaining the rationale: atem yidatem et nefesh hager, “you know the soul of the ger (23:9)”. In my father’s words:”Yadoa (to know) in biblical Hebrew has a connotation of intimacy. The Torah tells us: you know intimately how it feels to be oppressed, you should therefore empathize with the ger and not oppress him.”

We know intimately, from the inside, what it feels like to be an outsider. Such feelings are the definition of who we are as Jews. They lie deep within us; they are our very soul.

Later in the Torah, we are called on not just to “not oppress,” but to actively love the ger: veahavta lo kamokha. In the same language as the more famous “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Torah tells us: “Love the ger as you love yourself.” Why? Because you are the ger. You have the same soul of suffering. Exchange yourself for the other. Use your memory of the suffering of being an outsider to teach you not hate, but love.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Some Lessons from Parashat Yitro

1) On Torah and Busyness:

Moshe was only able to get the Torah once he cleared his schedule.

The parsha begins with the view of Moshe’s life from the vantage point of Yitro, his father in law. What Yitro sees is a leader overwhelmed by detail, working from morning until night adjudicating disputes among his people. Yitro wisely advises Moshe to delegate, to find others to do some of the easier work so that he is left to concentrate on the harder cases.

Moshe follows this advice. The result? The biggest divine revelation of all time – Mount Sinai. And the giving of the biggest divine gift of all time – the Torah.

The Torah is only given when Moshe is free enough to hear it.

What are we not hearing because of our overscheduled lives? What divine gifts, what pieces of Torah, are we not receiving because we occupy our brains from morning until night with a million details? What might we hear if we did slow down?

2) On Sharing the Burden:

Do you think you need to do everything yourself?

Sometimes we look around and see all the problems in our private and public lives and feel that we must attend to them all ourselves. This must be how Moshe felt and why he spent all his time judging every single dispute, night and day, without break. I must do it all, he thought.

Lo tov, “not good,” is how Yitro describes this scenario. These words are reminiscent of God’s words to Adam: lo tov heyot haAdam levado. “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” It is never good to do things alone, to think that only I can do everything that is needed in this world. The world was created with two people to let us know that we are not meant to do everything, that we are meant to share in the burden, to be a team.

The message is not laziness – let someone else do it. The point of letting go is a positive one -- to make sure you are putting your energies where they belong; Moshe had to let go of doing all the judging himself in order to be open to a different task, for which he was uniquely qualified – consultation and communication with God.

Not doing it all yourself is also a question of honoring the other and honoring the talents of the other. There were plenty of honest upright people fit to be judges. Doing it all himself meant that Moshe was not giving meaningful work to these others, honoring the contributions they have to make.

In regard to tzedaka, the gemara in Bava Batra says that the act of facilitating another person’s tzedaka giving is even greater than the act of giving tzedaka yourself. Facilitating the giving of others means getting out of oneself enough to recognize the contributions that others have to make. To think we must fix all the problems ourselves comes partly from a place of arrogance and self-centeredness. To step back and recognize that others have their place just as we have ours, is to step out of oneself and turn lo tov into tov.

3) The Lesson of Yitro’s Advice: Their Wisdom is Torah, Too!

The parsha of the giving of the Torah begins not with the Torah that God gave us, but with the wisdom of Yitro, a non-Israelite.

Perhaps this juxtaposition is intended to expand our notion of Torah, to remind us to seek wisdom not just in the four walls of the Bet Midrash and in our own tradition, but also among those wise people of the world as a whole.

The source of wisdom is both above and below, both inside and outside. On the cusp of getting the Torah, it was as if God wanted Moshe to know – I am about to give you something special, but don’t let it close you off from the world’s wisdom. Keep it alongside. Be open to wisdom wherever it appears.

4) Family and Torah:

The Torah is not given to the Israelites until Moshe's family -- his wife and 2 children -- arrive. The ultimate experience of Torah is not a solitary one, but one which necessarily involves one's whole family.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Parashat Beshallah: On Divine Accompaniment in all its Forms

When we sing Shalom Aleikhem on Friday night, can you feel the presence of those accompanying angels, one to the right and one to the left?

This week’s parsha is about accompaniment. The people of Israel leave Egypt and God keeps them company and protects them, taking the form of a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of light during the night, leading them and clearing a path before them through the great unknown dessert. When the Egyptians come from behind, this divine accompaniment moves from in front to behind, to protect the Israelites and separate them from their enemies all that night before the splitting of the Sea. The midrash compares the situation to a parent who carries her child first in the front, then in the back, then on her shoulders, depending on the danger that is presented.

When the Israelites walk though the Sea, the Torah describes repeatedly vehamayim lahem homah miyiminm umismolam, “the water was for them a wall to the right and to the left of them.” In front and behind are the divine pillars and on either side are the walls of water. The feeling is one of complete embrace.

The bed-time prayer similarly says: To the right of me is Michael,
To the left of me is Gavriel,
In front of me is Uriel
And behind me is Rafael
And above my head is the Presence of God.

Do you feel this sense of divine embrace and accompaniment? It does not mean we won’t face danger and difficulty, as the Israelites do here and throughout their desert experience. Danger and difficulty are part of life, but facing them with a sense of divine accompaniment can mean the difference between winning the Amalekite war and losing it.

How do we recognize – really see -- that God is around us? Perhaps the pillar of light and cloud were clear (though perhaps not; perhaps they could have been interpreted by scientists as natural phenomena). But later in the parsha, the Israelites, struggling with food and water, ask: Is God present in our midst or not? This is our question – is God present? Where? How can we recognize God’s presence?

Sometimes God’s messengers take strange forms. Yes, sometimes God’s angels look like a pillar of light. But sometimes they look like Pharaoh. According to the midrash, the parsha actually begins with a word of accompaniment, beshalah, “when he sent,” but who is doing this accompaniment here? Pharaoh! The very same Pharaoh who caused all this suffering and will later give chase again is here doing the mitzvah of livuy, accompanying one’s guest on their way, just as Avraham did! Pharaoh is performing the divine act of accompanying!

Are we open to seeing the divine in those around us, even from those we least expect it? The other day I was deeply sad and crying and I prayed to God to give me strength. Soon after, I walked into a public space and someone I did not know looked over at me and gave me a big smile and said: How are you today? I thanked God for that angel. To feel God’s presence is to become aware of the pillars of light in all their forms, to the right and to the left, behind us, before us and always above us.

Meditation on Emet (Truth)

We say in Tefillah: Emet veYatziv. True and stable. Truth is stable. Strong. Grounded. Feel the truth of your body. Feel the truth of your body on the chair, the stability and truth of the ground holding you up. You are strong. You are stable. You are true.

What is your truth?

God wants you to be you. At Mount Sinai, the Torah says that we saw the voices. What does it mean to see voices? The Hasidic Rebbe, Sefat Emet says: “Each one of Israel saw the root of her own life-force. With their very eyes they saw the part of the divine soul above that lives in each of them.”

Take a minute to see the part of the divine soul living inside you. Take a minute to feel how you are a piece of the divine. A precious unique piece of the divine.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin says: In the normal way of the world, a person stamps out many coins with one die and they all look exactly the same. But the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.

Each one of us has a unique piece of God inside us. Each of us has been sent down here to fix something very particular in this world. We each have a different job to do.

If you look at your friend, a successful lawyer, and think – but I am not doing as much, not as successful, or you look at another acquaintance, a great teacher, and think – but what am I compared to her? Do not do so. You are special. There is something that only you can contribute to this world. If you read someone else’s writing or hear someone else’s Torah and think – why can’t I write or think like her? Do not do so. Be happy for their contributions and remember that you have some other contribution to make. Each person has a place. Each person has a Torah.

In the end of our lives the question will not be – why were you not more like Cheryl or Sarah or Veronica? The question will be and is today – how can you be more like you? How can you honor your truth and play the part that only you can play in this world.

Honor your truth. Do you honor your truth? Or is there some piece of you that is deeply ashamed of what is unique about you? Is there some shame attached to that truth? Do you wish you were someone else? Do you hide from your truth? Do you wish you were more like everyone else?

Honor your truth. Honor your truth because it is God’s truth. God has made you as you are for some reason. To honor your truth, to search for that truth and give it respect and act it out in the world – to honor your truth is to come closer to God. God resides in each of our truths. To be more truly you is also to feel God’s presence, to feel God’s closeness, to become aware of God’s truth. Honor your truth. Be you.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Parashat Bo: On Memory and Suffering

Why are we a people who suffer? Why did we need to begin our existence as a people with the story of Egypt and slavery? Why must we always remember Egypt?

Indeed, Egypt is where memory starts for us. Yes, we have the whole book of Breshit with all of its beautiful narratives about our matriarchs and patriarchs. But we are never commanded to remember them. There is no Jewish holiday commemorating Avraham’s visit from the three angels or Yaakov’s ladder dream. The first and primary point of memorable history for the Jewish people is the exodus from Egypt.

It is in this week’s parsha that narrative actively turns into eternal history; at the very moment that they do the paschal sacrifice, on the eve of their exodus from the land of their suffering, the people learn that this is to be a permanent institution, their first permanent institution. And, as part of this new memory making process, they are given the calendar, a way to mark an anniversary each year to commemorate this event. Though in the Torah we have had days since Day 1 of creation and years since we counted how many years people lived, months are new and it is the months within the year that help us create a calendar and a way of remembering history.

Almost everything we do in Judaism ties back to this event -- zekher leyitziat Mitzrayim. Why? Why did we need to start our peoplehood in suffering? Why was it so important that we suffer and be redeemed, so much so that God told Avraham ahead of time that this was always part of the plan?

There may be many reasons for the centrality of Egypt in our religious psyche, but this year what seems paramount is that it teaches empathy. We are meant to be a people who – from our own experience – know about suffering and therefore care when others suffer. We are a people who remember what it is like to be a slave and also what it is like to be a refugee in a boat that is turned away from the one country in the world we had hoped would take us in. We know what this is like and we are commanded to remember it. May we not need more of our own suffering to remind us.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Some Thoughts on Parashat Shmot

1. Names --

The parsha is called Shmot, “names,” and begins by listing individually each name of the children of Yaakov, even though, as Rashi points out, we have heard this list recently, at the end of Breishit. But names are important; they show that we give each person kavod, honor. In our Mussar group last week, when we talked about working on the soul-trait of kavod, one woman, Tracey Grant, suggested that we take on the practice of using people’s names in conversation with them as a way to show them honor. Try it – notice how it feels when someone else uses your name, how honored and loved you feel by this simple gesture – and notice how easy it is to do this for someone else.

2. Seeing--

One of the roots that appears frequently in this parsha is ra’ah, “to see.” Pharaoh tells the midwives to “see” whether it is a boy or girl and kill the boys. But instead, they do a slightly different kind of seeing – vatirena et Haelokim , “they fear God,” fear being a root that in the feminine plural looks almost exactly like “seeing.” They see God -- they fear God and not Pharaoh -- and therefore save the children. You have to know what to see/fear in life.

Moshe’s mother, when he is born, “sees that he is good.” Maybe this is the best job description of a parent --- seeing that a child is good or seeing the good in a child. How can we see and focus on the good in our children in order to make this good potential grow?

The daughter of Pharaoh “sees” the little basket in the water with a baby crying in it and stretches out her arm to bring it to her and see what is there. She sees and hears the pain of others.

Her adopted son, Moshe, learns from her to see the suffering of others. He goes out and “sees the suffering of his brothers.” God, too, sees this suffering, but it is Moshe who sees it first, according to the Torah, and, as it were, brings it to the attention of God through his own noticing and caring. The first step to redemption is to see the suffering of others, not to be so immersed in one’s own affairs as to become indifferent and unseeing. In our Mussar group this week, we are working on chesed, and according to Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, the first step in chesed is to train oneself to really see and notice what it is the other person is lacking and in need of, where the suffering of the other lies.

3. Eheyeh – Being with someone in pain

God reveals His name to us in this week’s parsha – it is Eheyeh, “I will be.” Rashi explains: “I will be with you in this trouble (and also in all future troubles, but they can’t hear that right now).” I will be with you. What greater chesed is there than this simple statement of accompaniment and presence in time of trouble? This characteristic of God surely we can always emulate – to simply promise that we will be with people in their times of trouble. We may not be able to fix it, but we can always ride with them.

The word eheyeh actually comes up numerous times in God’s conversation with Moshe – it is how God convinces Moshe to do the job – you say you can’t do it, that’s ok – I will be with you, I will be with your mouth, I will accompany you as you take on this difficult task. Do we feel that divine accompaniment in our own lives – do we remember that, if we are doing God’s work, God will be with us, we are not doing it alone, no matter how hard it seems?

4. Relieving God’s pain – Moshe Moshe!

When God calls to Moshe at the burning bush, he says, Moshe Moshe! And there is no punctuation between those two calls. The midrash explains that God is like a person carrying a very heavy burden – impatient and desperate to unload it – come, quick – Moshe Moshe, quickly, come on ---help me unload this burden.

God is suffering over the suffering of human beings in this world – it is like a burden He carries – and He is calling to us to help Him unload the burden, to share in carrying the suffering of others.

5. Aharon’s joy – being with someone in joy

According to tradition, Aharon merited the priesthood because of the way he reacted to Moshe’s appointment by God as leader – vera’akha vesamakh belibo, “he will see you and be happy in his heart.” There is the “seeing” verb again -- it is not enough to be able to see another person’s suffering; one also needs to be able to see another person’s joy – and be happy in one’s own heart over their joy. This may be especially hard for a brother because of competitiveness but Aharon breaks that Breshit model of sibling rivalry and gives us a different model –one of joy at another’s success. This, too, is a kind of chesed, to know how to be joyful with another person.

6. Sometimes things get worse before they get better

The parsha ends on a depressing note. After Moshe and Aharon go to Pharaoh to ask for the Israelites to leave for 3 days, Pharaoh, in anger, makes things worse for the Israelites – now they have to collect their own straw and still make the same number of bricks as before! Things are indeed about to turn around for the Israelites, but it sure doesn’t look like it right now! Haven’t we been in situations like this, where just when we are trying to fix things, they suddenly get worse? It makes us feel hopeless and despairing, and indeed, Moshe feels this way, but we as readers know the end of the story. If only we could have faith in our own lives and there, too, know that – despite appearances and temporary setbacks -- the end of the story will be good!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Parashat Vayehi: To Be Alive in Egypt

Vayehi Yaakov be’eretz Mitzrayim . The Torah says that Yaakkov lived, vayehi , in Egypt. He didn’t just stay there or sojourn there. Even in the land of Egypt Yaakov managed to have a little bit of true hayut, aliveness; even amidst a world of hiddenness and falsehood, Yaakov managed to keep his connection to the true Source of all Life.

That is the challenge, isn’t it? Not just to survive, but to live, to live with clarity and purpose and a constant sense of connection to the divine. Shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid. I place God before me always. To remember, in our daily land of Egypt -- while we are hurrying our children out the door in the morning, while we are in the traffic jam, while we are waiting in line or doing dishes or seeing clients -- to remember at all these points our connection to the Source of Life.

Because that feeling, that connection, that sense of dignity and divine purpose, is so easily covered over in our daily existence. We may begin the day saying Elokai Neshama shenatata bi tehora hi, O God, the soul you placed inside me is pure – we may begin up in that lofty space of acknowledging that we have this pure divine soul inside us -- but how soon we are trodden down by the nitty gritty of this world, by the obstacles and challenges and daily hassle, how soon we forget that pure divine soul.

The goal is to be, like Yaakov, hay, truly alive and connected to our aliveness and the One who gave us life, even while we are in the land of Egypt, even while we are in the dirty mess of this world existence, not to leave Egypt, but to elevate Egypt, to elevate that daily mess with our consciousness of hayut, aliveness.

Maybe that’s why they say that our father Yaakov, he never really died. Yaakov lived in this Egypt existence of ours with a real sense of aliveness, an attachment to something beyond this world, something eternal. To become attached to that Eternal Source in this life is to never die, but to become part of eternity.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Parashat Vayigash: Revelations

Maybe there is always some deep unknown truth lying just beneath the surface of our daily lives.

Yosef’s brothers spent months (years?) now living in this weird covered up reality of not knowing that the powerful man who was treating them so harshly and at the same time so kindly was in fact their long lost brother.

There was this cloud of untruth and confusion whirling around them. What did it take to finally break the silence and the mystery – to force the truth to be revealed?

Yehudah’s forthrightness and courage. As the Sefat Emet points out, Yehudah had no real claim as to why this vizier shouldn’t take his brother Binyomin as a slave. Yehudah acted from the heart, speaking from a place of desperation and genuineness that was so powerful it forced the truth to uncover itself. Yosef could no longer hold back.

We are familiar with this scenario. In relationships and in Torah and in education and in other areas of life, we go through long periods of confusion and cloudiness until finally something breaks and we have a sudden vision of truth and clarity and connection.

These are moments of revelation, moments when we are offered a glimpse of the divine undercurrent in every aspect of our lives. We do all live in a haze most of the time, like the brothers, not really seeing the truth. And what finally uncovers the truth for us is our own true heart seeking desperately to see the light, not always directly – like Yehudah, we don’t know what it is we don’t know – but instinctively searching, pleading, yearning until finally the very search itself with all its heartfelt urgency breaks down the barriers and we understand that the vizier is our brother and that God Himself lies behind it all.