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.