Be there: on Mishpatim and presence

24721539102_1c3ce739f2_zIn this week's Torah portion, Moshe and Joshua and 70 elders have a mystical experience together. They ascend the mountain and behold a vision of God, under Whose feet there is the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, as pure as the very sky itself.

As if that weren't enough, then God says to Moshe. "Come up to Me on the mountain, and be there." And this time Moshe goes up on the mountain alone, and enters into the very cloud of God's presence, and remains there with God for forty days and nights.

This year the phrase והיה שם / "be there" leapt out at me. It seems superfluous. Wouldn't "come up to Me on the mountain" have been enough? Tradition teaches that every word in Torah carries meaning, which means there must be a reason for this phrase to be there. "Be there" suggests a different quality of being present.

It's one thing to climb the mountain. It's another thing entirely to really be present at the top -- or to really be present along the journey up or down. Anyone who meditates has probably noticed how hard it is to be in the moment. It's human nature to get caught up in the past or the future, to become so conscious of remembered wounds or joys (or anticipated ones) that we miss the now. Surely Moshe had that problem, just as much as you or I do. So God reminded him: come to Me, and be there.

I was talking about this with R' David Markus , and he asked whether I saw an anagram in the phrase והיה שם (be there.) I looked at it -- and suddenly saw the beautiful teaching he had wanted me to glimpse. Rearrange the letters of והיה ("and be"), and you get the four-letter Name of God, that Name which some consider too holy to speak (and others say we "speak" every time we breathe). When we can be there, then God is there. Making ourselves fully present is how we open up to encountering God.

Shabbat is a 25-hour-long opportunity to be there. On Shabbat, we're called to set aside our striving, to set aside the inclination to try to change things. We relinquish whatever happened last week: whether bitter or sweet, those days are over now. We resist anticipating whatever might happen during the new week to come: whether bitter or sweet, those days aren't here yet. Shabbat is the day we're given, each week, to be in the now. To let now be enough. To find the perfection in this very moment. To be there.

"Six days you shall labor and do all your work," Torah teaches, "but the seventh day is the Shabbat of Adonai your God; on it, you shall not do any work..." Maybe you recognize those words from the Shabbat lunchtime kiddush. The rabbinic text known as the Mekhilta asks, "Is it really possible to do all of one's work?" Isn't work, by its definition, something which can never entirely be completed? Rather, teaches the Mekhilta, on Shabbat we are called to rest as if all of our work were complete. 

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet teaches -- following on that idea from the Mekhilta -- that when a person truly stands still for Shabbat, peace and wholeness will descend on them, and it will be as if their work were complete. When we can relinquish workday consciousness, and our to-do lists, and the stories we tell ourselves about the future and the past -- when we can be there, as God instructed Moshe -- then we can touch perfect wholeness. Then it is as though our work were done. Then we can experience Shabbat as "a foretaste of the world to come."

The mystical vision of God atop a firmament which was like sapphire, as pure and clear as the very sky, may be beyond us. And the experience Moshe had atop the mountain, surrounded by a cloud of divine presence for forty days and nights, may be even more unimaginable. But we can all follow God's instruction to him, because we can all have the experience of Shabbat as a time to be there, to commit to being wholly present right here and right now. And right here, right now. And right here, right now. 



Image: a detail from a painting by Rabbi Pamela Jay Gottfried, in watercolor and salt.

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday morning.


Like sapphire

This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, contains one of my favorite verses: כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר. I love the verse (it's the second half of Exodus 24:10) because it's one which Nava Tehila has set to music. Had they not written this melody, I might never have paid much attention to these words... but because of this melodic setting, the verse has become one of my favorites in Torah.


 If you don't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube

This verse comes from the scene where Moshe and the 70 elders, having ascended with God, are preparing for a banquet in heaven. Torah describes the floor where they are sitting as being like sapphire, though not actually sapphire. I think of this as a metaphor for how difficult it is to describe deep connection with God: our words always fail us. "It was like sapphire," we say, and words fall short.

Sometimes melody can deeply evoke an experience which doesn't quite translate into language. I don't know how Moshe and the elders might have tried to describe their ineffable experience with God once they got home again. Maybe if they could hear this melody and these harmonies, they would be satisfied that their experience had been communicated, with feeling and with heart if not with words.

Shoes on, shoes off: spiritual journey and Shabbat consciousness

6976129727_b7fef43397_mThis is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. 

In this week's Torah portion, we read the instructions which came before the Exodus from Egypt. Slaughter a lamb, the people are told, and mark the doorposts of your house with its blood as a gesture of protection against the tenth plague. Roast it, and eat it in haste, with your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand.

I'm always struck by that injunction. Today's equivalent might be eating the feast with our suitcases packed and our car keys in our pockets. The spiritual meta-message is: have what you need with you, because at any moment it might be time to go.

Just a few weeks ago we read God's instruction to Moshe to remove the sandals from his feet -- or, in my favorite Hasidic interpretation from the Baal Shem Tov, relinquish his habitual way of doing things -- because the place where he stood was holy ground. We removed our shoes and made ourselves vulnerable. Today we're being told to put our shoes back on. To get ourselves ready to go. What can we make of these two sets of instructions? Maybe they can speak to us about two qualities of life.

Put on your shoes and be ready to go: that's weekday consciousness. We have to close ourselves up a little bit, protect our tender places, in order to function in the world. Like the children of Israel getting ready to leave Egypt, we need to have our act together and be ready for whatever journey lies ahead. Sometimes it's a physical journey. And even when we're not going anywhere, we're on an emotional and spiritual journey of learning, and growth, and change. Weekday consciousness says: put on your shoes and be ready to hit the road. 

Take off your shoes, remove your habitual ways of seeing and being, because the place where you stand is holy ground: that's Shabbat consciousness. Shabbat is a time when we don't do work, we don't try to change things, we just sit with what is and find joy therein. In weekday consciousness we work, we strive, we travel, we change. In Shabbat consciousness we sit still and experience the Oneness behind all multplicity, the connection which underlies every separation, the togetherness with God which is manifest even when we are seemingly alone.

Shifting from one of these states to the other isn't always easy. I remember the very first time I went on retreat at the Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim, some fourteen years ago. I spent a week there in community, davening three times a day, meditating, learning, praying, singing, opening my heart in ways it had never been opened before. It was an amazing experience, and a transformative one. And then I left the retreat center and went to drive home, and the first thing I did was stop to gas up my car.

I walked into the convenience store with my heart wide open, beaming, because that was the way I had grown accustomed to being over my week on retreat. I don't remember what the clerk said, but he was curt, and I felt like I had fallen from heaven down to earth with a thud. I hadn't put my emotional "shoes" back on. I didn't yet know that after every retreat, there is a period of re-entry during which I have to re-learn how to wear the emotional armor which usually protects my spirit and my heart.

Whole-hearted encounter (with God, with holiness, with something beyond ourselves) requires us to take off our shoes. It requires us to remove our habits and the protective coverings which usually separate us from the world. And by the same token, being in the world may require us to put our shoes back on. To not let our most tender emotions be on display. To keep the world a bit at arm's-length, in order that its routine slings and arrows not be completely devastating to our hearts and our souls.

During the week, we need to put on our shoes and be ready to go. On Shabbat -- and at times when one is fortunate enough to be on retreat in spiritual community, if that's something you ever get to do* -- we can take off our shoes and just be. Take off the protective calluses which usually separate us from the world. Take off the habits which keep us from living in the moment. How does that feel for you?

And tonight we'll make havdalah, and the scent of the spices will be like smelling salts for the soul, energizing us to return to the weekday journey of making, doing, becoming. When you put your shoes back on and pick up the yoke of the new week, what journey will you undertake -- and how will it be informed by the spaciousness of the pause which Shabbat brings?




*allow me to recommend the ALEPH Kallah in July, for which preregistration has just opened!


On peeling away what protects us from the world

I offered an extemporaneous d'var Torah at services yesterday. This is what I said, more or less. (Deep thanks to my hevruta partner, with whom I shared these thoughts afterwards, and who offered the insight about being unsteady on one's feet.)



וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ--כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא.

And God said: do not come any closer. Take the shoes off of your feet, for the place where you're standing is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)

The story begins when Moshe is herding his father-in-law's sheep. He sees an angel of God within a bush aflame. The bush burns but is not consumed. He says to himself, "I need to go see what's going on; how is this possible?" So he turns toward the bush to look. That's when God calls his name and tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where he is standing is holy. 

On a surface level, the instruction is simple: take off your shoes. So he does. Taking off our shoes makes us vulnerable to thorns or stones (or tiny lego bricks! yes, I am the mother of a six year old) which might be in our path. Doffing shoes opens us to the world. 

There's a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov -- which I first encountered via Reb Zalman z"l, in his book A Heart Afire -- which creatively rereads the phrase to argue that God was instructing Moshe to strip away his habits. (The interpretation relates the phrase מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ, "off of your feet," to the verb להרגיל, "to become accustomed" or "to practice" –– literally, to feel that one is standing firmly.) Our habits of inattention can protect our hearts from the world just as surely as solid shoe soles can protect our feet.

And that's exactly what this story mitigates against.  Authentic spiritual encounter requires us to remove our habitual ways of seeing. It calls us to remove the habits which allow us to keep our hearts safely locked-away. God calls us to remove the shoes from our feet and calluses from our hearts, to peel away the protective layer which allows us to keep the world at a distance, so that we can be real with what is.

When we remove our "shoes" -- when we peel away the calluses, the leather, the protective coverings which habitually occlude our hearts -- we open ourselves to the full range of human emotion and experience. We open to our sorrow and our anger and our grief... and also our delight, our exultation, and our joy. All of these are required in order for us to be present to the miracles hidden in plain sight. 

Following God's dispatch means precisely not feeling secure on our feet -- because otherwise we're making our spiritual practice about us (and about being in control), and not about God. So take off your shoes. Remove the calluses which protect your heart. Remove the habits which allow you to keep the world at arm's-length. Let yourself be vulnerable, even unsteady. Imagine what miracles you might see.


Image: Jackie Olenick's beautiful print Holy Ground, which hangs in my office.

Other divrei Torah on this parsha:

Crying out, and the possibility of change

CryOfHeart0210 copyThe Exodus from Egypt begins with the deeply-felt cry of the heart. That's what strikes me as I reread this week's Torah portion, Shemot. Torah teaches that the children of Israel, suffering harsh treatment, cried out."They sighed from their bondage, and they cried, and their wails rose up to God" (Ex. 2:23). God took note of their cry, and remembered the covenant with their ancestors. This is the first step in the journey toward freedom which we retell each year at Pesach: a story so core to who we are that we allude to it each week in the Shabbat kiddush, and in our daily liturgy, too.

The first step toward liberation wasn't Moshe seeing the Burning Bush, or going before Pharaoh to demand his people's freedom: it was a krechtz, a heartfelt cry. Torah teaches that we cried out, and God remembered us and answered.  One could quibble with the text: why does God need to be reminded? Wasn't God able to see our suffering before we cried out? But maybe the crying-out was important not so much because God needed to be reminded that God's children were in tight straits, but because we ourselves needed to cry out, to acknowledge our own constriction and our own grief.

We've all heard the parable of the frog who jumped into a pot of cold water and acclimated as the water temperature rose, never realizing that the rising temperature spelled impending death. Apparently it isn't true in any scientific sense, but I think there's spiritual truth in that grisly story. One can become accustomed to tight straits in many forms: to pain, and to suffering; to overwork; to being taken for granted or being mistreated. Like the frog in the story, we may not notice when our circumstances become so toxic that they're dangerous.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that our ability to live with pain -- whether physical or emotional -- is a sign of strength. Sometimes we regret our painful circumstances, but don't see any way out of them, so we make a virtue of necessity and learn to live with them. That's a coping mechanism, and it can serve its purpose well. But the downside of that coping mechanism is that it habituates us to our own suffering. And when we're accustomed to our own pain, we don't cry out... a silence which can easily go hand-in-hand with losing faith in the possibility of anything better than where we are.

Torah teaches that when our ancestors cried out in pain, God's compassion was aroused and the process of the Exodus began. Maybe life's circumstance has taught you that crying out doesn't "help," because it doesn't materially change your reality. I believe otherwise. Spiritual life demands authenticity. Sometimes where we authentically are is a place of grief, or constriction, or pain. We have to be willing to feel that -- and to give voice to the cry which comes from that place. In so doing, we open up the possibility of change.  And conversely, if we can't let ourselves feel where we are, or can't cry out from where we are, it's worth revisiting that frog parable again.

Maybe crying out will catalyze external change, dramatic change, like the children of Israel leaving slavery in Egypt. Maybe it will spark internal change, a change in our relationship with the place where we are, or a change in our ability to hope for better things. This week's Torah portion reminds me this year that when we cry out, we arouse compassion. I believe we arouse compassion in the Holy One of Blessing. But even if you don't "believe" in that kind of God, consider the possibility that when we cry out, we arouse compassion in human hearts, including our own. From that place of compassion -- maybe especially compassion for ourselves -- a different future can arise.


Image source.


Ladder (a tiny Hasidic teaching on this week's Torah portion)

Secrets-climbing-career-ladderIn this week's Torah portion, Jacob goes forth from Beersheva. He lies down with his head on the stones of a particular place, and he dreams of a ladder planted in earth with its head in the heavens and angels flowing up and down.

(When he wakes, he says "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" That's one of my favorite verses of Torah. I love that sense of wonder.)

The Degel Machaneh Efraim -- grandson of the Baal Shem Tov -- teaches that this is a passage about expansive mind and contracted consciousness. The angels moving up and down the ladder are a representation of the natural ebb and flow of our lives as we move from big mind to small mind, from a God's-eye view of the world to a limited human view and back again.

The thing is, our ascent and our descent are inevitably interconnected. Ascent leads to descent which leads to ascent again. When a tzaddik, a righteous person, falls from a high level (perhaps through losing sight of the big picture and getting mired in "small mind"), the experience of having-fallen gives rise to yearning which pulls him back up. Our low places spur us to climb.

I love this teaching about gadlut (expansive consciousness) and katnut (contracted consciousness) -- that they are interrelated; that falling is precisely the first step in rising again. And I love the idea that it's our distance from God, or our distance from expansive consciousness, which makes us yearn to erase that distance and be our best selves once again.

Then why am I?

At the very beginning of this week's Torah portion, Rebecca feels her twins struggling for dominance in her womb. Her response is an existential question: "If this is so, then why am I?" Every year when we reach this parsha, this verse leaps out at me. And every year when I apply the diamond of this verse to my own life, it reveals a different facet of my own heart and mind. (I love that about Torah study.)

If this is so, then why am I? This year the question resonates for me in an interpersonal way. There are people I love who are sick, and I am helpless to heal them. There are people I love who are in tight straits, and I am helpless to free them. There are people I love who are suffering, and I am helpless in the face of what they're going through. I want so much to make things better -- and I can't.

Rebecca's question reverberates in me. If I can't bring comfort, if I can't bring healing, if I can't make things better, then what am I doing here? Why am I even, if I can't balm the suffering of those I love? It's not an intellectual question, but a heart-question. Something is wrong and I can't fix it even though I yearn to do so with all of who I am. If I can't make it better, what am I even doing here?

Rebecca brings her question to God, and God gives her a narrative answer: there is a struggle inside her because she is carrying twins who are destined to tussle with each other. When I bring this same question to God, the answer I receive is just one word: love. Why am I? Love. What am I here for? Love. What can I extend to those in my life who are sick or suffering or grieving? Love. Only love.

I imagine that as my heart overflows for those in my life who are in tight places, so God's heart overflows for all of us.  I think there's something about the experience of yearning to make things better for a beloved which is integral to human life -- and maybe this is part of what Torah means when it says that we are made in the divine image and likeness. As God feels compassion, so do we.

And maybe that is itself an answer to Rebecca's question. That's what we're here for. To feel with others, to feel for others. To wish we could make things better for each other. Even when we can't fix, we can choose to continue to feel; we can choose to continue to love; we can choose not to turn away.




Rivka's questions, our answers, 2006

Why am I and how can I integrate?, 2013

Peace parsha: if this is so, then why am I?, 2014


White light, rainbows, and the soul: a teaching on parashat Noach

19360722113_02a6f45582_zWhen our ancient ancestors saw rainbows, what must they have imagined? Today's Torah reading suggests that they saw rainbows as God's mnemonic device, a reminder of the promise that God would never again try to destroy all life.

Today most of us would probably say that rainbows exist because of scientific principles. Raindrops refract sunlight, dividing it into its constituent wavelengths. White light becomes red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Rainbows take something ordinary -- plain white light -- and reveal the extraordinary hiding within it. All of those colors in the spectrum are always already part of every sunbeam, but we don't see them until the raindrops refract the light.

And that scientific explanation takes me right back to theology. The kabbalists, our mystics, use this as a metaphor for God. God is singular, God is One -- like white light. But for those who have eyes to see, God's qualities fan out like the colors of the rainbow.

Hidden within the oneness of white light are the seven colors of the rainbow. And hidden within the Oneness of God are lovingkindness, strength and boundaries, harmony, endurance, humble splendor, generativity, and Shekhinah -- what our mystics called the seven most accessible qualities of God.

This year, the image of the rainbow teaches me about balance. When white light meets raindrops we see the spectrum of colors in perfect balance across the sky. No one color drowns out the others: they're all there. All of these qualities are part of God, and in God too they need to be in balance.

Too much gevurah (judgement) might lead to a harsh decree. Too much chesed (overflowing lovingkindness) might lead to emotional floodwaters. But when all of God's qualities are in right balance -- when all of the colors of the rainbow are present -- then the earth can know peace.

The rainbow reminds me of the need to accept and integrate disparate parts of ourselves: our lovingkindness and our ability to draw boundaries, our balance, our ability to endure. We who are made in God's image also contain all of these colors of self and soul, and we need all of them.

Sometimes we see our spectrum of inner qualities most clearly through the prism of tears. Whether we weep in sorrow or in gladness, times of deep emotion offer opportunities to see ourselves more clearly. When tempestuous internal weather meets the light of one's neshama, the light of one's soul, that light can be refracted through tears -- just as literal sunlight is refracted through rain.

What kind of rainbow is revealed in us when the light of the neshama is refracted through tears? What does it feel like to become aware of those internal colors, to accept our own range of emotion and spirit so that the rainbow of our whole selves can stretch resplendent across our inner skies?



This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Noach. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


When we reach the place of promise

The verses we just read instruct us that when we enter into the promised land, we are to offer the first fruits of the soil to God, and we are to recite before God "My father was a wandering Aramean..." -- the story of how we became slaves in Egypt and we cried out to God, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Maybe those were instructions for specific people in a specific place and time. But I think they are also instructions for us now. Here's what I think they say:

When you reach the place of promise, stop and remember where you come from. When you reach the thing you've been waiting for and working for, stop and be thankful, and then honor the sacredness of your own story. When you reach the moment you've been walking toward or running toward or yearning toward or trudging toward, cultivate gratitude, and then tell yourself how you got there.

When you finally "get there" -- wherever "there" is for you: when you make it to Shabbat after a hard week, or when you make it to Rosh Hashanah after a long year, or when you make it to the day when you reunite with a beloved who has been far away, or when you realize that what you yearn for is already yours -- remember the hardest part in your personal story, the narrow place, the Mitzrayim when your heart felt squeezed and your spirit thirsted for waters you weren't sure where to find.

Even when we reach the place of promise --the time we've been waiting for, the internal spaciousness which is the opposite of Mitzrayim -- Torah calls us to remember our own times of constriction. Maybe that's because times of constriction come and go in every life, and Torah wants us to inscribe on our minds and hearts the truth that every constriction can lead to a new place of openness. If we're willing to do the work, every constriction can be a contraction toward a new beginning.

Maybe it's because our stories make us who we are, and the only way to fully reach the place of promise is to bring all of who we've been. Even the parts which were hard. Even the things about ourselves with which we struggle. Only when we bring our whole selves -- including the parts of us which ache or cry out; including our own wounds -- can we reach the place of promise. The place of promise is always open to us. Are we ready to gather the scattered parts of ourselves and come home?

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Ki Tavo.

Lean On Me: Moshe and Joshua, striking the rock, and change

1In the verses we just read, Miriam has just died and the people have no water. God tells Moshe to speak to a rock so that it will yield water for the children of Israel. Moshe, instead, responds with snark: "Listen, you rebels -- shall I get water for you out of this rock?" He hits the rock. The rock gives water, but God is not pleased. God says: Because you failed to make Me holy in the eyes of the Israelites, you will not enter the promised land.

Those of you who were here last Shabbat afternoon heard our bat mitzvah's perspectives on this story. She opened up some classical teachings about the text, but ultimately concluded that from her point of view, this is profoundly unfair.

I can understand that. Moshe may have thought this was pretty unfair, too. First of all, when God spoke to him from the bush which burned but was not consumed and told him to go to Pharaoh, he said "who am I to do such a thing? I stammer. Send someone else." He didn't want the leadership position in the first place, but God deployed him anyway.

Then he gave his entire life to leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. The people kvetched and they quarreled and they pushed him to his breaking point. He lost his temper this one time, and for that, he's denied entry into the place they've been yearning to reach?

I have a lot of empathy for this vision of Moshe. How frustrated he must have been. How tired of feeling under-appreciated and undervalued, of deferring whatever his own dreams might have been in order to lead this difficult people. But what happens if we read today's verses not as a punishment but as a natural shift in generations?

Moshe snaps at the people and hits the rock and God thinks: ahh -- I see that you're approaching the end of your rope. So God gives notice to Moshe: you've done amazing things, and I can see that you're getting weary, and it's okay -- you've led the people so very far -- you don't have to lead them all the way. You can place your hands on Joshua and give him some of your spirit. Lean on him (that's what smicha means), transmit your Torah to him, and then let go. Trust the next chapters of your people's story to his hands and his heart.

Before the end of his story, Moshe will have the opportunity to stand before the people and remind them of everything they've experienced thus far. That's the book of D'varim / Deuteronomy -- the Hebrew name means "Words," and the Greek name means "Second telling." Moshe gets to give over his wisdom one final time before he dies, and when he dies, Torah tells us, God buries him.

When I imagine myself in Moshe's shoes at the end of his life, I imagine gratitude at the opportunity to pause before the end and retell my own story. Moshe stands before the Israelites and speaks the poem of his life, the poem of their lives, giving meaning to everything they have experienced. He has the opportunity to meet death gently, at an advanced age, after having told his story and done the inner work of letting go. We should all be so lucky.

And when I imagine myself in the shoes of Joshua, Moshe's successor, I imagine gratitude at the opportunity to spend a lifetime learning from the greatest prophet the Jewish people would ever know. I imagine Joshua feeling humbled by the awesome task of trying to take over for Moshe -- Moshe, who spoke face-to-face with God, who brought Torah down from Sinai, who presided over the Exodus from an old world to a new one. Never again will there arise a prophet like Moshe. Talk about a hard act to follow.

I hope that Joshua said thank you often enough. I hope he communicated to Moshe how honored he was to be ordained in his lineage, and how much love he felt for the people they were both called to serve, and how deeply he knew that he wouldn't be leading the people forward from there if Moshe hadn't gotten them as far as he did.

And I hope that before he died Moshe was able to reflect back on the scene we just read, and maybe to chuckle with a little bit of chagrin, and to feel gratitude that he had such a student to whom he could pass on his gifts. A student who became a colleague, in the end; a successor; maybe even a friend.


Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Chukat. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Eldad, Medad, and Reb Zalman's tisch

Furniture-dining-room-chairs-sale-awe-dark-brown-wooden-lacquer-green-dining-chairs-framing-with-armrest-and-floral-patterned-upholstered-theme-cross-legs-buffer-teak-dining-chairs-restaurant-furniturIn the verses we just read from Beha’alot’kha, God takes the spirit which was upon Moses and places it on seventy elders, and all of them begin to prophesy. Then two other men, Eldad and Medad, also begin to prophesy. Joshua, who will be Moses' successor, urges Moses to stop them. And Moses says, "Are you upset on my account? Would that all of God's people were prophets!"

When we think of the English term "prophecy," we think of foretelling the future. But that's not what a Biblical prophet did. In the Biblical understanding, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. The great rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that it was the prophet's job to offer a God's-eye view on the world.

The Biblical prophets spoke on God's behalf: sometimes words of love, sometimes words of caution and judgement. The prophets bequeathed to us a treasury of writings which call us toward a world redeemed.

In the Jewish understanding, prophecy isn't about predicting the future. Prophecy seems to mean something like opening ourselves to that Voice from beyond which exhorts us to be better than we think we know how to be.

In this morning's verses, I hear Joshua's anxiety. His boss Moses was the only one who had a direct line to God, and now suddenly all of these people are speaking on God's behalf -- even people who weren't invited. The familiar structure of authority is at risk of breaking down!

I can empathize with Joshua's fear. And I love Moses' response: oh, dear one, are you jealous on my account? You think I mind having other people connecting with God? On the contrary -- I wish everyone had a clear channel through which divine spirit and wisdom could flow.

Tradition teaches that never again will there arise a prophet as great as Moshe. Today's verses offer a glimpse of his greatness because they show us someone who was not threatened by others being uplifted too. Moses knew that connection with God is not zero-sum, and that other people opening their hearts to divine wisdom didn't diminish his ability to do the same.

One of my favorite stories about my teacher Reb Zalman z"l is about how he used to teach at his Shabbos tisch. "Tisch" is Yiddish for "table;" it means a celebratory gathering where students gather to imbibe wisdom from their teacher, usually accompanied by singing niggunim and toasting l'chaim! Following in the footsteps of his Hasidic forebears, Reb Zalman would gather his hasidim around the table, and offer his unique and beautiful Torah, and his students would be nourished by his wisdom.

And then he would do something which his forebears didn't do. He would invite everyone to rise, and to move one chair to the left. Now someone else was sitting in the "rebbe chair" -- the big cushy seat with the armrests at the head of the table from which the rebbe was supposed to offer his teachings. And he would say, "Look inside for the Rebbe-Spark within you -- and teach from there."

And then they would do it again, and again, until everyone at the table had had the opportunity to be the teacher, the giver of wisdom, an open channel for divine grace. Everyone got to sit in the rebbe chair, both literally and metaphorically.

It was important to him that all of us learn that "rebbe" is a function, a role, into which we too can step. That we too have wisdom to give over. That we too can open our hearts to something beyond ourselves and learn to trust that the wisdom which will flow through us will be the right wisdom for this moment. That all of the power shouldn't reside in one person, because that isn't good for the rest of us -- and it's not good for the one person in power, either.

"Would that all of God's people were prophets." Would that we all felt safe enough to open our hearts and minds to divine inspiration. Would that we all trusted our intuition enough to discern when the voice urging us on is a holy one. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.


This is the d'var Torah which I offered yesterday morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

I've heard the story of Reb Zalman's tisch many times. If you'd like to hear about it from someone who was there, I commend to you Reb Arthur's post Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried Like A Seed -- To Sprout.


A love poem to Torah - for Shavuot



is a tall drink of water
on a thirsty day

the longer I know him
the more beautiful he becomes

I want to hold him close
and press my lips to his shoulder

to unfasten his gartel
with unsteady hands

to trace every letter
I find on his skin

He is milk and honey
on my tongue

anointing oil
on my hands

voice like flowing water
inscribing my heart


Many Jewish mystical texts hint that the relationship of the scholar with Torah is like romance. The Torah is the (feminine) Beloved, and the reader (presumed, of course, to be male) is the one who seeks Her beauty. Sometimes she is described as the beloved daughter of the King -- which is to say, God -- given to Israel in marriage.

I've never seen a poem which takes the opposite tack, anthropomorphizing Torah as beloved and male. If you know of others, please let me know.

Gartel is Yiddish for "belt;" in this context it alludes to the belt which in standard Ashkenazic practice goes around the Torah scroll, beneath the velvet mantle.

Chag sameach -- wishing you a joyous Shavuot!

God, too, is lonely: a d'var Torah for Behar-Bechukotai

Lonely-loneliness-21529870-329-328Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

This week's Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, teaches that every seventh year we must give the land a rest. Every seventh day we get Shabbat, a time to rest and be renewed; every seventh year the earth deserves the same thing.

This is called the shmita year -- in English, "Sabbatical." And this year right now -- 5775 -- is a shmita year, which means that all over the world people have been talking and thinking and praying about how we can best care for our earth.

This week's portion also teaches us about the yovel, or Jubilee. After seven sevens of years, we reach the 50th year, a Jubilee year, during which all debts are canceled and all property is returned to its original owner. Or, I should say, its original Owner-with-a-capital-O, because one of the themes of this Torah portion is that the earth belongs to God and we are merely resident on it. As God says in this week's portion, גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי –– "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me."

This is a familiar category. Torah frequently speaks in terms of Israelites, outsiders, and the גר תושב (ger toshav), or resident alien -- someone who is not originally of our community but is resident with us and among us. It's a lovely inversion of the norm to say that even we "insiders" in the community are ultimately resident strangers, because when it comes to the planet, the planet belongs to God and we're merely borrowing space on it for the short spans of our lives.

Earlier this week I studied a beautiful Hasidic teaching about the verse "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me." Usually we understand it to mean what I just said -- that we are גרים ותושבים, resident strangers, on the earth which belongs to God. But the Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim offers a poignant alternative reading.

He cites a verse from psalms: "I am a stranger in the land; do not hide Your mitzvot from me." (Psalm 119:19) Someone who is a stranger, he points out, has no one close to them with whom they can connect and tell the happenings of their day. A גר תושב / ger toshav is inevitably lonely. When such a person does find a friend, he writes, then they can joyously pour out everything which has been in their heart.

Here's where he makes a radical move. He says that the Holy One of Blessing is a lonely stranger in this world, because there is no one with whom God can connect wholly.

Let me say that again. God is a גר תושב / ger toshav.

God is a resident alien, a lonely stranger, existentially alone. This insight really moved me. I know that we all have times of feeling alone, and the insight that God too feels this way -- that our loneliness is a reflection of the Divine loneliness -- changes how I relate to those feelings of loneliness.

The Degel finds a hint of this in the psalm he cited. "I am a stranger in the land," said the psalmist -- as if to say, 'God, like You I am a stranger in this world, so don't hide Your connective-commandments from me!' The psalmist is saying: God, like You I am essentially alone. I yearn for Your mitzvot, Your connective-commandments, to alleviate my loneliness. And God yearns for us in return.

God is the lonely stranger, all alone in the world. We are the friend God finds, and when God finds us, God can pour out all of what is on God's heart -- in the form of Torah and mitzvot, our stories and our opportunities for connection with God.

"Y'all are resident-strangers with Me" can mean: y'all are strangers just as I, God, am a stranger. Y'all feel loneliness just as I, God, feel loneliness. And because we are together with God in this condition of loneliness and yearning for connection, we are never truly alone.


My thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman who studied this text from the Degel with me.


Kedoshim: Holiness and Baltimore

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) An abbreviated version of these reflections were published on Friday in The Wisdom Daily.

"Y'all shall be holy, for I -- Adonai your God -- am holy."

At first blush, this seems like a pretty tall order. I get that we're supposed to be holy because God is holy, but to compare ourselves to God seems like a recipe for falling short.

But the Jewish mystical tradition offers a different view. Rabbi Moshe Efraim of Sudlikov teaches that when we're holy, our holiness percolates upward and enlivens God. There's chutzpah for you: to think that our actions and choices give strength and holiness to divinity on high!

In a funny way, it means that God needs us. God needs us to be striving toward holiness, so that the energy of our striving will enliven the highest heavens. And we need God as our beacon, our reminder that holiness is possible. We need God, who needs us, who need God. Holiness unfolds and grows in the space between, that space of relationship.

Whether or not you believe that God's holiness derives from ours, it seems to me that God manifests in the world through our actions and our choices. What should those actions and choices be?

This week's Torah portion gives us some suggestions. Feed the hungry. Treat your parents with reverence. Keep Shabbat. Don't render an unfair decision; treat both rich and poor as equal human beings. Don't hate your fellow in your heart. Love your fellow as yourself.

This week as I've been studying the Torah portion, I've also been reading stories about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Freddie locked eyes with a police officer. Freddie ran, but the officer pursued him and caught him, then radioed for a police van for transport.

By the time the police van reached the police station, Freddie had three broken vertebrae and a fractured voice box. He died of spinal injuries shortly thereafter. It seems clear that the injuries took place while he was in police custody, in the van; his death has been ruled a homicide.

In the wake of Freddie's funeral Baltimore burned, though already a coalition of local leaders, clergy, and even gang members are working together to end the violence. I've seen some people decry the rioting. For my part, I empathize with the viewpoint that riots can be an expression of hopelessness and grief, and that we should be angrier at those responsible for Freddie's death than at those who have smashed windows in despair.

I find myself thinking about Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York after being placed in a chokehold and gasping "I can't breathe." I find myself thinking of Michael Brown, shot by police while walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri. I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in this country without the privileges with which my skin rewards me.

It's facile, and often problematic, to claim that Torah justifies any given political position. People can and do use scripture to justify every political stance. But I do think that this week's Torah portion can speak to us today.

"You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger." Fifty percent of those in Freddie Grey's neighborhood are unemployed. There are whole communities living at or below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty line are non-white. Do our social systems provide for them the way the Torah's system of gleaning aimed to do?

"You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich." Do residents of Freddie Grey's neighborhood trust the police and the justice system to live out that instruction?

"Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow." What can this instruction mean to those who fear that no matter what they do, they and their fellows will still be systemically mistreated and undervalued because of the circumstance of their birth or the color of their skin?

"You shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself." This verse is at the heart of the Torah, both metaphorically and literally. This week's Torah portion instructs us to be holy as God is holy. If this passage is a set of instructions for that process, then holiness means loving others as we love ourselves; wanting for them all the things we want for ourselves; ensuring that they live within a social system and a justice system which are as dedicated and lofty as we would want for ourselves.

In the original context of Leviticus, the word רעך -- "neighbor" or "other" -- meant Israelite neighbor, your fellow who is like you and is part of your tribe. But I think this moment calls us to live in a spirit of post-triumphalism. Ours is not the only path to God, and in this interconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Every citizen of this country is my neighbor, deserving of equal rights and equal opportunities. Every citizen of this world is my neighbor, because each of us is enlivened by the same spark of divinity, and because the myth of our separateness has long been dispelled: what happens on this part of the planet impacts that part of the planet, and vice versa.

May the Torah's voice call us to an honest accounting of our obligations to one another, and may we work toward the day when all human beings are truly afforded respect, dignity, and justice. Kein yehi ratzon.


Becoming Real: Tazria-Metzorah and Being Velveteen

Once there was a stuffed rabbit who yearned to be Real. His Boy loved him so dearly that he became Real in the eyes of the Boy -- but when living bunnies caught sight of him, they laughed, because they knew he was only a toy, unable to run and play with the real rabbits.

Some of you are smiling. You recognize this story, by Margery Williams. Let me continue.

One day the Boy became sick, and the stuffed rabbit stayed with him throughout his illness. It was uncomfortable and hot but the rabbit did not budge, because he knew his Boy needed him.

When the fever broke, the doctor instructed the family to burn everything which had been in contact with the boy -- his sheets, his clothes, anything which might carry the germs of scarlet fever. Of course, this meant the bunny, too.

So the bunny was taken to a place outside the house along with everything else which might be contagious, and set aside for the burning. But before the gardener arrived with the matches and kerosene, the bunny wept a real tear, and from that tear arose a fairy, and the fairy told the bunny that he was truly Real now: not only in the eyes of the Boy who had loved him so dearly, but real now in the eyes of everyone.

Why am I telling you this story today? Because of our Torah portion. Tazria-Metzora is full of blood, childbirth, leprosy, eruptive afflictions, and questions of purity. This week's Torah portion takes us on a deep dive into the binary of tahor and tamei -- usually translated as pure and impure, though I don't like that rendering. I resonate with Rabbi Rachel Adler's interpretation that being tamei means being charged-up, electrified, with a kind of uncanny life-and-death energy.

Have you ever been sick, and felt both physically and spiritually different from the "well" people around you? Have you ever done the holy work of the chevra kadisha, lovingly preparing a body for burial, and come away feeling that the world is in strangely sharp focus for a time? Have you ever given birth, or witnessed a birth, and felt as though you were touching the Infinite? Have you ever visited a hospital ward, and come away feeling that the hospital is a holy place -- and also a place which gives you the shivers, with its reminders of mortality? That's tum'ah: a temporary state of wakefulness to the Mystery of life and death.

This Torah portion speaks frequently of tzara'at -- usually translated as leprosy or as an "eruptive plague." Tzara'at is something with which a human being can be afflicted, and it is also something with which a house can be afflicted. In either case, the priest comes to examine, and there is a quarantine period, and if the house cannot be cleansed, it is torn down and taken to a place of tum'ah outside the city.

Although our Torah text comes from a time many centuries before germ theory, it speaks of contagion, and of whether and how it is possible to shed tum'ah and become tahor again.

Reading this Torah portion this year, I found myself thinking of the Velveteen Rabbit. His Boy contracted scarlet fever, and afterwards the rabbit was deemed contagious and was cast away. He became, in the language of Torah, tamei.

But it was through his encounter with sickness that he was able to become truly Real: not only Real in the eyes of his Boy, but Real in the eyes of the world. It was through the experience of being tamei that he was able to emerge into a state of taharah and to become truly alive.

And the same is true for us. Every life contains encounters with illness, contagion, and death. But when we take the risk of loving one another even though we know that life contains loss -- when we oscillate with one another between sickness and health -- that's how we become Real.

Becoming Real, as the Skin Horse in the nursery reminded the Velveteen Rabbit, is not always comfortable. Usually it involves being loved until one becomes shabby and threadbare. Becoming Real comes at a price, and that price is willingness to be in the world, to age, to have one's sharp edges rubbed off or one's plush fur become tattered.

But once you are Real, you know that your fur growing shabby isn't the most important thing. Once you are Real, says the Skin Horse, you can never be ugly.

Or, phrased a different way: once we are Real, we know deep in our hearts that in the eyes of the One Who made us, we are beautiful; we are perfect; we are loved; just the way we are.


From trauma to healing: Shemini

Here's the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday morning.


Every year I struggle with the story of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who brought forth "strange fire" and who were immediately consumed by a fire which came from God. On its surface, this is a story in which deviation from the established way of approaching the divine results in death.

This story does not sit well with me. But our sages taught us that entering into Torah can be an experience of entering into pardes. The word means "orchard" (and is the origin of the English word "paradise") but is also an acronym for four layers or levels of entering into the text. Let's go deeper, from pshat (surface meaning) to remez (what's alluded-to or hinted-at.)

When I look at the story's allusions, I see a story about the power our ancestors ascribed to the sacred. God is so powerful that an unmediated encounter has the capacity to be dangerous, to fry out our circuits, as it were.  It is as though God were a power plant, and Nadav and Avihu plugged in a device which wasn't correctly calibrated. The power tore right through them and burned them up.

Many religions have regarded the sacred as dangerous. Intellectually I can place this story in that context. But when I place myself in Aaron's shoes -- and even more when I place myself in the shoes of his wife Elisheva -- I am horrified. So too was Aaron. Torah tells us: וידם אהרן –– "And Aaron was silent." The word used for "silent" connotes not only lack of speech, but a kind of existential silence.

Sometimes in the face of tragedy there are no words. Aaron's silence hints at his grief: this is an explanation on the level of drash, telling an interpretive story around the scaffolding of the text. Torah doesn't tell us that he felt sorrow, but we can read that between the lines; it is in the white fire around the black fire of the words, in the human context we bring to the bare outlines of the story on the page.

Later in this week's portion we read that if a small dead animal, a mouse or a lizard, falls into an earthen pot, that pot becomes tamei -- which is usually translated as "ritually impure," though I understand it as meaning "electrified." We vibrate at a different frequency for a while as a result of contact with blood or with the body of a creature which has died, contact with tangible life or death.

The way to make the pot pure again is to break it and glue its pieces back together. Here's what I take away from that: contact with death can change us, but through our brokenness we can find a new kind of wholeness. In fact, in order to stay tahor, to stay pure, we need to break sometimes and then be repaired. Everybody breaks. This is the path to wholeness: not despite breaking, but through it.

The death of a child is an almost unthinkable horror. I pray that the trauma in each of our lives will be less than that. But there is no life without some sorrow. Maybe the answer is to try not to fight the brokenness, but to allow it to happen, and to cultivate trust that when we are put back together again we will be able to access the purity of heart and soul which our liturgy teaches belongs to each of us.

I don't mean to suggest that our breaking is "good," or that tragedy and trauma are "worth it" because we grow thereby. I couldn't say that to Aaron and Elisheva, and I can't say it to you. But I do think that breaking and healing are quintessential human experiences -- and I pray that for every shattering, there can be tikkun, there can be healing. For me, that is the sod (the secret meaning) of the juxtaposition of these two texts: one shows us trauma, and another shows us a path toward repair.

Our tradition holds that a person who has made mistakes and then made teshuvah -- has repented and re/turned themselves in the right direction again -- is closer to God than one who has never sinned. Maybe a person who has experienced some brokenness and then been mended is more whole than one who has never been broken. This is the journey of being human. We grieve, and then we heal.

In the Japanese art of kintsugi, "golden joinery," pottery is broken and then glued back together with powdered gold. The seams aren't disguised; they're magnified, made to sparkle. The beauty is found not despite the patched places, but in them.What would it feel like to stop trying to hide our brokenness, and instead to illuminate our beauty -- not despite our scars, but in them; not despite our sorrows, but through them; not despite our seams, but celebrating our own patchwork hearts?




Love, Leviticus, and embracing the middle

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Vayikra.

In cheder, the Hebrew elementary school of late 19th and early 20th-century eastern Europe, boys began learning Torah at the age of five. They began with Vayikra, which we call in English "Leviticus." (They'd go on to learn mishna at the age of seven, and Talmud once they had mastered the mishna.)

We have a five year old. And I cannot for the life of me imagine him reading Torah fluently at this age. But setting that aside, I am perennially fascinated by the fact that the cheders of old -- and contemporary schools which follow the cheder model, mostly in the Hareidi / ultra-Orthodox world -- begin their studies of Torah not with בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, "as God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth..."

They begin with  וַיִּקְרא אֶל-מֹשֶׁה , "and God called to Moses" -- which is to say, with Leviticus, the book of the Torah which I suspect most modern Jewish adults like the least. Sprinkled blood and burnt kidneys and laws about nakedness -- it couldn't be further from the post-sacrificial Judaism we know and cherish.

Many scholars and rabbis and literary critics make the case that Torah has a chiastic structure. In a book with a chiastic structure, the most important part is not the beginning or the end, but what's in the middle. Leviticus is in the middle of the Torah: ergo it's the most important part.

The scholar Mary Douglas argued that Leviticus too has a chiastic structure, which tells us that the most important material in Leviticus is in the middle: the holiness code, which exhorts us to be holy as Adonai our God is holy. Leviticus is the heart of Torah, and holiness is the heart of Leviticus.

And what is at the heart of the quest for holiness? וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי ה׳: "and you shall love your neighbor, your 'other,' as yourself: I am Adonai." (Leviticus 19:18.) It may not be exactly the verse in the dead-center middle of the Torah, but it's close.

Here's Martin Buber on that verse:

"Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai" (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: "I am Adonai." – "You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find Me; not in his love for you but in your love for him."

He who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you.

For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world.

Continue reading "Love, Leviticus, and embracing the middle" »

Ki Tisa: Inspiration

Here's the short d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday for parashat Ki Tisa.


In the verses we just read, Torah tells us God has filled the craftsman Bezalel son of Uri with ruach elohim, "spirit of God" or "breath of God." In the very beginning of Torah, we read that ruach elohim m'rachefet al pnei ha-mayim, "the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters." God has instilled in Bezalel that same divine spirit which was manifest at the first moments of creation.

The craftsman Bezalel, it appears, was truly inspired. In / spired -- literally it means that someone (or some One) had breathed into him. God breathed inspiration into Bezalel, and in return Bezalel led the team of artisans who made the mishkan, the tabernacle which the Israelites are instructed to build so that Shekhinah, God's presence, can dwell within and among them.

So is inspiration something you either have, or don't have? Either God gives it to you, or you're outta luck? As a writer, my answer is no. Or at least -- not exactly. In my experience, inspiration comes and goes, but it can be cultivated. I have learned over the years that there are practices which will help to ready me to receive inspiration when it comes. As it turns out, Jewish tradition agrees with me.

The tradition prescribes a variety of steps which we should take if we seek divine inspiration. They include deep study of Torah, diligence in fulfilling mitzvot, cultivating piousness, and cultivating humility. Doing these things is no guarantee of divine inspiration, of course... but not-doing them is probably a guarantee that if God is offering inspiration, we won't be primed to receive.

I used to have a quote from the author Jeanette Winterson hanging over my desk. It read:

I do not write every day. I read every day, think every day, work in the garden every day, and recognize in nature the same slow complicity. The same inevitability. The moment will arrive, always it does, it can be predicted but it cannot be demanded. I do not think of this as inspiration. I think of it as readiness. A writer lives in a constant state of readiness.

I think spiritual life too asks us to live in readiness. Readiness to receive whatever comes. Readiness to experience connection with something greater than ourselves. If we keep our hearts open; if we keep our spiritual selves open; then maybe that wind from Beyond will blow into us and through us, bringing us gifts to share with our community, and gifts to share with the world.


Disagreement for the sake of heaven

9Adar_LoRezEng_180I had the opportunity to do something really neat last night -- to participate in a livestreamed Torah discussion with two colleagues, organized as part of 9 Adar: the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. What's 9 Adar? Glad you asked:

The 9 Adar project seeks to strengthen the Jewish culture of constructive conflict and healthy disagreements. In our ancient texts, it is called machloket l’shem shemayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). It means arguing the issues while respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other side, making sure that your personal motivation is to come to the best solution and not just to win, admitting when you are wrong, and acknowledging that both sides might be right. Approximately 2,000 years ago on the 9th of Adar, two major ideological schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, allowed their disagreements to degrade into terrible conflict. Today, we are using the day to promote the original culture of healthy and constructive conflict.

There have been a variety of 9 Adar events in various places over recent days and weeks. (The ninth day of the lunar month of Adar was actually a few days ago; our event happened a few days after the date itself, but was nevertheless part of the same "Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict" initiative.)

The conversation was between me,  my fellow Rabbi Without Borders Rabbi Alana Suskin of Americans for Peace Now, and Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski (profiled as The Chareidi Rabbi from Virginia, though he's no longer there; he's now the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Sinai in Kauneonga Lake, NY and Crescent Hill Synagogue in Rock Hill, NY), moderated by Lex Rofes and Caroline Morganti of Open Hillel. The question we were given was:

The figure of Korach has fascinated readers of the Torah for millennia. To what extent do you sympathize with his mindset, and with his challenge to authority? To what extent, alternatively, do you feel that his behavior was ill-advised, or even malicious? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn about this story as we explore our relationships to conflict and authority today?

(Korach, you may recall, was the fellow in Torah who rebelled against Moses' authority; he argued that the whole congregation was holy, so why did Moses hold himself above everyone? Moses said okay, fine, let's put this to God and we'll see who God prefers; and the earth swallowed up Korach and his followers.)

We began by going around the virtual room and each of us offering a few thoughts about Korach. Here's more or less what I intended to say in my opening remarks about Korach and his story:

I find that when I'm teaching Korach to my b'nei mitzvah students, they universally take his side. "What's so bad about Korach? He just didn't want all of the power to be in Moses' hands. And who elected Moses leader, anyway?" -- that kind of thing.  I know that I have at times felt great empathy with Korach -- and yet I've noticed that over the last 15 years my empathy for Moses has risen and my empathy for Korach has decreased, and maybe that's a function of me becoming a rabbi, or maybe it's a function of me just getting older, I don't know!

For me, the Korach story is a useful illustration of how not to handle conflict in my congregation. If someone becomes angry with me and how I'm doing things, and I respond with my own defensiveness, then I'm setting the stage for some kind of disaster -- the earth might not literally open up and swallow anyone, but there could be hurt feelings, damaged reputations, etc. We have to find a better way of settling our disputes.

For me the critical question is: was Korach actually acting out of a sense that everyone in the community is holy? Or was he jockeying for more power of his own? If it's really about his own ego and self-aggrandizement (e.g. he wanted some of Moshe's power), then it makes more sense that the earth swallowed him up -- because his makhloket (argument) wasn't really l'shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven).

For me that's what this all boils down to: how to keep our disagreements (including those around Israel/Palestine) for the sake of heaven, instead of for the sake of me being right and you being wrong.

"If the argument is based in love and mutual respect for one another, then it's an argument for the sake of heaven," said Rabbi Kolakowski, quoting the Satmar rebbe. "The way to tell if someone's a zealot and is just arguing for the sake of arguing is, how does that person lead their life in general? Does he argue about everything, or is it only when it's something important and for the sake of heaven that he gets excited and speaks up?"

Rabbi Suskin began by noting that she feels strongly ambivalent about Korach. It's hard for us as moderns not to feel some sympathy for the position of "we're all holy here" -- and yet our commentaries on Korach are pretty strongly negative. It's difficult to do with Torah what we want to do with other kinds of stories, and tell the story from the point of view of the "bad guy" and thereby redeem him.

She pointed out that the rabbis suggested that the reason that Korach's argument was not for the sake of heaven was that when he protested that "all of the people are holy," what he was really saying was not that we all have the capacity to be holy, but that in and of ourselves, without doing anything, regardless of what we do, we're holy. She argued that it's not really Jewish to say "I'm holy no matter what I do; no one can judge me." We're part of the community; our behavior impacts those around us.

From there we shifted into talking about what it means for disagreement to be holy -- Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right -- the Talmudic stories of Reish Lakish and of Kamza and Bar Kamza -- the obligation to rebuke, and also the obligation to recognize where people are and to speak to them in a way that they will hear -- finding the partial truth in opinions with which we disagree -- and more! Here's the video of our conversation, which ran for about 65 minutes:

And if you can't see the embedded video, you can go to it on YouTube - 9 Adar Interdenominational Text Study. If this sounds like fun to you, I hope you'll go and watch.

Terumah: the Torah of 40

Here's the d'var Torah I had intended to offer yesterday at my shul. As it turned out, I touched on a few of these ideas and then went in a different direction, as we were davening at the local nursing home, but I hope you'll read the prepared text anyway.

God spoke to Moshe saying: tell the children of Israel that they should bring Me gifts...from every person whose heart is so moved.


This week's Torah portion, Terumah, begins with this instruction to bring gifts for use in the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary intended to be a dwelling-place for God. Terumah, the name of the Torah portion, is usually translated as "gifts."

Earlier this week I studied a Hasidic text written by the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov. In his book the Degel Machaneh Efraim, he offered a fascinating interpretation of the word terumah.

Terumah, he said, can mean more than simply gifts. The word terumah can be deconstructed, the letters rearranged, into תורה מ / "Torah Mem" -- the Torah of forty. (Remember, Hebrew letters double as numbers.)

מWhat is the Torah of forty?

Torah was revealed atop Sinai over 40 days, he writes -- just as a human being, in ancient rabbinic thought, achieved its form in the womb over a period of 40 days. He's drawing on a longstanding rabbinic interpretation which connects the number 40 with the time it takes for something to go from beginning to fruition. The rabbis also taught that 40 are the days between planting and harvest, and 40 are the weeks between conception and birth.

So Torah comes to us through 40 (days), and a human being comes to us through 40 (either days or weeks.) What happens if we re-read the opening lines of this week's Torah portion through this lens?

God spoke to Moshe saying: tell the children of Israel that they should bring Me the Torah of completeness and fruition; the Torah of every human being.

Human beings and Torah both require 40 units of time to emerge into this world. Ergo, each person is a Torah! This is a radical teaching, because in Hasidic thought the Torah is the most valuable thing imaginable -- it's a direct transmission of God's essence.

Later in this week's Torah portion we read:

Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.

What can it mean to say that God dwells within us? The Degel teaches that that we bring God into ourselves when we study Torah, because Torah is one long and complex Name of God.

"God and Torah are one," says the Zohar -- so if we study Torah, and bring Torah into ourselves, then we are also bringing God into our hearts. The Zohar also teaches that God, Torah, and Israel are one, which is to say: we, and God, and God's Name as expressed in Torah, are all part of the same unity. In the language of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, we and Torah and God "inter-are."

The gifts we're called to bring before God are gifts of ourselves; gifts of our own completeness; gifts of new creation which only we can bring. The root of the word terumah is רם, which connotes raising something high. When we understand that we, and God, and Torah "inter-are," then we can bring our most unique personal gifts, and in so doing be elevated to the highest of spiritual planes. May it be so!



My infinite thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman for translating this text with me, and especially to R' David for helping me tease out its deeper spiritual implications. 

If the idea of "inter-being" is new to you, read this tiny excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh -- from his book The Heart of Understanding, which R' David and I also studied together some 25 years ago!