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.