Revising the poem: a d'varling for Shabbat Shuvah

Poemוְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם

Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths... (Deut. 31:19)

וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַֽיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites. (Deut. 31:22)

 

These are two verses from this week's Torah portion, Vayeilech.

The classical commentators have various theories on what it means that Moshe wrote down "this poem." Does that mean that on that day, Moshe wrote down the entire Torah? Does it mean that he wrote down some specific fragment of Torah, from this verse to that verse, but not the whole thing? I admire their commitment to detail. But what strikes me is the fact that Moshe uses the word poem in the first place.

To be sure, there are portions of Torah that are clearly poetry. Some of them are even written on the scroll in unusual ways -- like the Song at the Sea, a very ancient poem that is written in an interlaced pattern that evokes brickwork, or perhaps the waves of the sea. But over the course of this week's Torah portion, Moshe refers to what he's saying sometimes as a Torah, which we could translate as a Teaching; and sometimes as a שירה / shirah, which is the Hebrew word for poem.

Moshe seems to be saying that the entire Torah is, in some way, a poem.

When I was a chaplaincy student, during my first year of rabbinical school, I learned to think of hospital room visits as opportunities to encounter the "living document" of a human soul, the Torah of our lived human experience. Each life is a Torah, and delving in to the meanings we find in our lives is a kind of Torah study.

Of course, our tradition mirrors that metaphor in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which describes the Book of Memory opening. That Book "reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." We write the Book of Memory with our every choice, our every action, our every word.

Moshe says the Torah is a poem. And my chaplaincy supervisor taught that each human life is a Torah, a book that we write with our actions and our choices, worthy of study. From these two teachings, I come to the inescapable conclusion that each human life is, therefore, a poem.

Here's a thing I know about poetry: it benefits from revision.

We live in linear time, which means we can't revise the actions and choices we made yesterday -- we can't go back in time and edit out the things we now regret having said or done, or left unsaid or undone. But we can revise ourselves. We can revise our habits and our hearts. Indeed: that's precisely what the work of teshuvah is about.

If there were ever a time to look at the poem of our lives and figure out where we need to revise and reshape, now is that time. It's Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. I want to offer an alternative name for this Shabbes, in keeping with our Vision theme for the Days of Awe this year: the Shabbat of Revision. Re-Vision: seeing ourselves anew. Revising ourselves into a new form. That's the work of teshuvah, and it is always open to us.

The poem of your life is in your hands. How will you revise yourself this year?

 

Teshuvah

God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of Rachel.

I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;

God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God

sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.

I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem

to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.

I want every reader
to come away more certain

that transformation is possible. 
I’d like holiness

to fill my words
and my empty spaces.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter

and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.

If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) The poem was written in 2004 and can be found here, along with my other new years' poems.

 


What we choose to serve

Whodoweservesmall3Late in this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, there's a set of blessings and curses. Torah promises us that if we follow the mitzvot and walk in God's ways we will be blessed with abundance, and if we turn away we will experience curses. And then Torah says:

Because you would not serve Adonai your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve -- in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything -- the enemies whom Adonai will let loose against you. (Deuteronomy 28:47-48.)

Some of us may struggle with the notion of a vengeful God Who would repay us for breaking faith in these ways. (That's certainly not my God-concept.) But what happens if we read the verse not prescriptively but descriptively? In other words: this isn't about what God will "do to us" if we turn away from the mitzvot. This is about the natural consequences of choosing to turn away from a path of holiness.

Does the idea of serving make us uncomfortable? Maybe we want to say, I'm nobody's servant -- I live for my own self! But in Torah's frame, that's an impossibility. Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: not so that we could be self-sufficient and serve our own needs, but so that we could enter into covenant with God and serve the Holy One.

Everyone serves something. That's a fact of human life. The question is what we will choose to serve, and how.

In Torah's understanding, either we can dedicate our lives to serving the Holy One of Blessing -- through the practice of mitzvot both ritual and ethical; through feeding the hungry and protecting the vulnerable; through cultivating gratitude for life's abundance; through working to rebuild and repair the world; through the work of teshuvah, turning ourselves around -- or we can turn our backs on all of that.

And if we turn our backs on all of that, says Torah, we will find ourselves serving a master who is cruel and uncaring. Maybe that master will be overwork. Maybe that master will be a political system that mistreats the immigrant and the refugee. Maybe that master will be whatever we use to numb ourselves to the brokenness around and within us.

But there really isn't any other choice. We can't choose not to serve. We can't choose to be completely self-sufficient and not bound in relationship -- that's not how the world works. In Torah's stark framing, either we can serve God or we can serve something else, and the inevitable fruits of serving something else will be disconnection and lack and facing down a slew of internal enemies.

This is not to say that if we are facing internal enemies like anxiety and depression, it's a sign that we've turned away from the mitzvot or turned away from God. Many of us are plagued by those internal adversaries, and I thank God for the abundance of tools at our disposal for helping us deal with them, from therapy to spiritual direction to all of the practices that can help us maintain an even keel.

Being servants of the Divine doesn't mean we'll be spared those challenges. But  Torah says that if we turn away from the obligation to serve, we'll meet with what feels like enmity. If we turn away from the obligation to serve, we'll experience lack -- maybe because our needs won't be met, and maybe because we won't have cultivated the mindset that would enable us to feel grateful for what we have.

Choosing to serve God means choosing to be in relationship. It means choosing love, and choosing hope, and choosing ethical actions, and choosing spiritual practice, and choosing to work toward repairing both the broken world and our broken hearts. Choosing to serve God means choosing to be attentive both to the needs of others and to our own neshamot, our own souls. 

As you walked into this sanctuary this morning you may or may not have noticed the words emblazoned over the doors: עבדו עת–ה׳ בשמחה / ivdu et Hashem b'simcha, "Serve God with joy." Over our ark is the other half of the verse from Psalm 100, באו לפניו ברננה / bo'u l'fanav birnanah, "come into the Presence with gladness."

The question I invite us to sit with this morning is this: what does it mean to serve the One with joy? Is the verse urging us to serve God and to do so joyously -- or to cultivate joy and make that a form of holy servive? And what would it feel like to come into the Presence with gladness: to feel in our hearts and know in our minds that we are surrounded and suffused with holy Presence, and to be glad?

What would it look like, what would it feel like, to do our teshuvah work from that place?

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


A piece of mine in @929English

I've been really impressed recently with a new project called 929. Each weekday they share Torah insights and commentaries from scholars, clergy, artists, and more:

Each day, from Sunday to Thursday, you will land here on a new chapter, with the text of the chapter, an audio version, and many original materials about the chapter, including short posts with insights and comments, a playlist with several podcasts lessons on the chapter, a Hebrew Corner with a word of the day, and a helpful summary of the major points of the chapter.

(That's from their introduction to the site -- what it is, and how to use it.) The site exists both in a Hebrew edition and an English edition -- I'm linking here to the English edition but if you want to toggle to the Hebrew just click on the letters "HE" in the upper right-hand corner.

They're doing really great work -- which is why I was honored when they reached out to me to solicit a piece of mine. You can find it here: Dinah, the Silent Twelfth Child of Jacob. (Content warning: rape of Dinah.) My piece appears alongside a poem by Yakov Azriel, a screenplay by Nathan Lewin ("The State vs. Shimon and Levi"), an excerpt from Anita Diamant's retelling of the Dinah story, and more. 

I hope you'll click through and spend some time at 929. It's a powerful collection of resources that will enrich our relationship with Torah.

 


Pursue

Run after justice
the way an eight-year-old
runs after the ice cream truck
chasing its elusive music

sandals slapping asphalt
until panting, calves burning
you catch it
and taste sweetness.

Run after justice
with the single-minded focus
a thirteen-year-old
brings to their phone.

Run after justice
the way the mother
of a colicky newborn
pursues sleep.

Run after justice
whole-hearted and open, as though
justice were your beloved
who makes your heart race,

whose integrity shines
like the light of the sun,
who makes you want to be
better than you are.

 


Run after justice. See Deuteronomy 16:20

[W]hole-hearted. See Deuteronomy 18:13

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

 

I offered this poem at my shul this morning to close our Torah discussion. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


A renewed haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah

Over the years I've posted a few different poems that riff on the haftarah (the reading from the Prophets) that tradition assigns to the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which is a text from 1 Samuel, the story of Chanah who poured out her heart in prayer. 

I'm delighted to be able to share that I have a new resource to offer this year on that front. This is a revision of one of my Chanah haftarah poems, co-created with Rabbi David Markus, who has also set it to haftarah trope and recorded it.

You can find it in on the Builders' Blog at Bayit: Your Jewish Home in the Festival Year category, or by clicking through right here: Chanah in poetry and trope.

If you wind up using this in your Rosh Hashanah celebration, let us know how it works for you!


New in The Wisdom Daily: wisdom about refugees, from a talking Biblical donkey

...There’s something inherently funny about [a] talking donkey, but her voice hints at a deeper theme. “What did I ever do to you, that you should hit me with that stick,” said the beleaguered beast of burden. The Israelites might say the same thing to King Balak: what did we ever do to you, that you should seek to curse us for fleeing from horrific circumstance?

King Balak felt threatened by the presence of refugees on his doorstep. It’s not hard to find a contemporary analogue, someone in a position of tremendous power who looks at refugees and sees, not human souls in need of help and welcome, but a teeming horde of foreigners whose very presence is a threat...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily: Wisdom about the refugee crisis… from a talking Biblical donkey.


Cloud and fire, waiting and leaping


Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024In this week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lot'kha, we read again about the cloud of divine presence that hovered over the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our spiritual ancestors built in the wilderness. The divine presence took the appearance of a cloud by day and a fire by night. When the cloud settled, we made camp; when it lifted, we packed up and resumed our journeying.

"Whether it was two days or a month or a year -- however long the cloud lingered over the mishkan —- the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp."

The commentator known as the Sforno -- Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in Italy in 1475 -- notes that the Torah repeats this point five times. Because nothing is extraneous in Torah, these repetitions must be there to draw our attention to something incredibly important.

So why is Torah highlighting this point so strongly? Maybe to teach us something about discernment and journeying.

The journey undertaken by our ancient ancestors in the wilderness isn't just a historical story about something that happened to them back then. (Or maybe an a-historical story.) It's also about our lives in the here and now. And in our lives there are times when we need to pack up and move, and there are times when we need to pause and discern what should come next.

The paradigmatic journey taken by our ancient ancestors was from slavery to freedom to covenant. From constriction to liberation to connection with something greater than ourselves. We too take that journey, not once but time and again.

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we don't have the visual cue of a giant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to tell us when it's time to sit with what is, and when it's time to leap into the unknown. That's discernment work we have to do on our own -- maybe with a trusted friend, or a rabbi, or a spiritual director. (Or all three.)

The new Jews we're celebrating this morning know something about sitting with what is, and they also know something about leaping into the unknown. Each of them spent a long time discerning who they are and what they need and whether the desire for change was motivated in the right ways. Each of them spent time beginning to learn about Judaism before making it their spiritual home. (I say "beginning to learn" because none of us is ever finished learning about the richness and depth of our tradition -- including me.)

And each of them decided, at a certain point, that it was time to take the plunge. It was time to stop waiting and reflecting. It was time to embrace the next step on their journey.

In other words: they enacted precisely the spiritual journey Torah describes our ancient ancestors taking. And the same can be true for all of us.

This week's Torah portion invites us to cultivate the quality of emunah, trust. Trust that if we're in a period of waiting and discernment, we'll be able to tell when it's time to get moving and in what direction to move when the time comes. Trust that if we're in a period of leaping, the new chapter to which we are leaping will be one of sweetness and growth. Trust that we're headed toward a place of promise, of abundance and sweetness -- and that we can always course-correct as needed.

And I think it also invites us to cultivate a quality of inner listening. Because we don't have the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, we need to listen for the subtle movements of heart and soul.

This can be one of the gifts of Shabbat: time to discern how we are and where we are and where we need to be. It can be one of the gifts of prayer: in Hebrew, l'hitpallel, literally "to discern oneself." It can be one of the gifts of spiritual practice writ large: learning how to listen for when it's time to sit still and when it's time to get going, learning how to listen for who and where God is calling us to be.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for his teachings Waiting to Exhale and The Soul of Waiting.

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: Steve Silbert's Visual Torah sketchnote from parashat Pekudei, an earlier moment in Torah that introduces us to the pillar of cloud and fire.


And bring you peace

BlessingIn this week's Torah portion, Naso, God speaks to Moshe and tells him to transmit to Aharon the following words of blessing to give to the people:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ / May God bless you and keep you. 

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ / May God's presence go before you and be gracious to you. 

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם / May God's presence be always with you and bring you peace.

Two things strike me about this passage this year.

The first is the Divine game of telephone. Granted, this is a common game of telephone at this point in the Torah: God speaks to Moshe and tells him to tell us pretty much everything. But in this instance, I see an extra layer of meaning in the way the transmission comes through. God telling Moshe to tell Aharon to tell us becomes an example of a deeper truth: blessing is connective. Blessing is relational. Blessing originates with God, but we speak it into being through our connections with each other.

The other thing that strikes me is the content of the blessing. For many of us this is a familiar text. Some of us maintain the practice of saying it to our children every Friday night. In some communities the rabbi offers it as a closing benediction after every service. I say these words to every b'nei mitzvah kid who stands on our bimah. At last weekend's conversion, I offered these words to our new Jews. These words are so familiar we may not pay a ton of attention to them most of the time.

But notice:

The text promises that God will bless us and keep us -- but it doesn't claim that God will keep us free from struggle or change.

The text promises that God's presence will accompany us with grace -- not just "graciousness," in the sense of gracious hospitality, but grace, חן / chein, that unearned and un-earnable flow of abundance from on high -- but it doesn't claim that grace will spare us life's ups and downs.

The text promises that God will be with us and will bring us wholeness and peace -- but it doesn't claim that "peace" means perfection or an end to our spiritual work or our spiritual growth. 

Elsewhere in this parsha we read about the ritual for when spouses suspect each other of infidelity and there has been a breakdown of their relationship that may or may not be reparable. And we read about the promises of the nazir, one who makes certain commitments to God for a stated period of time. With this juxtaposition, Torah seems to be saying: the promises we make to each other as human beings may or may not endure. Our human promises may be temporary or time-limited.

But the promise that God makes to us is not time-limited or temporary. When we stand as channels of blessing for each other, when we speak these words of blessing to one another, we invoke God's accompanying presence and grace and care. Always.

God's presence and grace and care can't protect us from challenges or disappointment... but they will always endure. God will always keep our souls safe in the palm of Her hand. God's presence always accompanies us and showers us with love we cannot earn and cannot lose, no matter what. And that presence always offers us access to wholeness and peace: not through pretense, but through authenticity and realness.

Because שלום / shalom doesn't just mean the absence of conflict. It means the presence of wholeness. And wholeness doesn't come when we put a bandaid over our sorrows: wholeness comes when we allow ourselves to be real, in our sorrow and in our joy. Putting a bandaid over our sorrows (spiritual bypassing) is fragmentation: I feel this, but I will pretend that. And fragmentation is the opposite of wholeness. Wholeness requires us to feel what is, all of what is, with all that we are. 

So I say to you today:

May you feel God's presence blessing you and keeping you, no matter what curveballs life throws your way.

May you feel God's presence accompanying you and steeping you in a love that can't be lost.

May God's accompanying presence in your life bring you wholeness, now and always.

Amen.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image: a papercut of this passage by David Fisher.

 


Lift up your heads, and know that you count

078f18a43033a8495bf3c77a0e40085cTake a census, this week's Torah portion tells us. שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל -- literally, "Lift up the heads of the community of the children of Israel." Don't just count them: uplift them. Let them feel in their hearts and know in their minds that they count.

Of course, the text goes on to specify who we should count: the men. We didn't yet have consciousness of how limited -- and limiting -- that paradigm is for us and for the world. But the core teaching that every one of us counts is some powerful Torah.

Today we encounter these words as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew. I don't think that's a coincidence. Before we can receive Torah tonight, we have to lift up our heads. We have to take an accounting of who we are.

We have to make sure we know that we all count: men and women and nonbinary folks, Jews by birth and Jews by choice and seekers of other traditions who walk alongside us. We have to take note of every one of us, in all of our multiplicity and diversity of experience and background and heart.

Tradition says that all of us were there at Sinai -- the soul of every one of us, every Jew who ever was or ever will be. And since we know that a mixed multitude left Egypt with us, surely that mixed multitude stood together at Sinai too. Shavuot is our celebration of covenant with God, and every one of us is part of that covenant. If even one soul had been missing, it wouldn't have been complete. We all count.

Three members of this community formally joined the Jewish people yesterday. [Here's where I was going to say some things about that, connecting them to the Torah portion - but that part was personal and is not being published online.] As of this weekend they count in a minyan: another form of counting and being counted.

Does the concept of counting ring any other bells for you right now? For seven weeks we've been counting days, ever since the second seder. Tonight that count culminates in revelation. Today is the final day of the Omer. According to our mystics, today is the day of Malchut She'b'Malchut -- the day of immanent indwelling feminine divine Presence; the day of Shechina.

May we be suffused with awareness of holy Presence as we prepare ourselves to receive. May we prepare ourselves to be sanctuaries -- so that Shechina can dwell with us, and among us, and within us, now and always.

 

This is (more or less) the d'varling I had intended to offer this morning at Shabbat services on our Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat, had the camp not canceled the retreat. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image source.


Love and justice

B_7eQn4WEAAc7w_This extraordinary quote from Cornel West has been floating around lately: "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."

Love and justice are two sides of the same coin. That's a familiar idea to me from Jewish mystical teaching and theology. In the spiritual journey of the Counting of the Omer, the first divine quality we cultivate in ourselves is chesed, abundant lovingkindness -- and it's always followed and matched by gevurah (sometimes called din): boundaries, strength, justice.

It's not only in our mystical tradition, either. In the Torah the call to love our neighbor / our other as ourselves is juxtaposed with "do not bear false witness," "treat workers fairly," and "do not stand idly on the blood of your neighbor" (do not stand by when someone is being harmed, whether with actions or with prejudice or with words.) We practice love through justice.

Love doesn't exist in a vacuum separate from justice. Without justice, "love" is a feel-good veneer hiding a rotten core, what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage."   

This isn't just about our individual choices (though those do matter, and should be ethical and just to the best of our abilities). It's also about our systems and structures and communities. If with our silence we normalize unjust behavior, we become complicit in that unjust behavior even if we didn't perpetrate it ourselves. From the macrocosm (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, white nationalism) to the microcosm (e.g. lashon ha-ra, sexual assault, abuse), Judaism calls us to actively pursue justice not only as individuals but in community. We do this not separate from the call to love the other, but precisely as an expression of that call to love.

One might imagine that love is "spiritual" and justice is "political," but Judaism teaches that the spiritual and the political are always necessarily intertwined. Torah and Talmud both interweave "spiritual" teachings with "political" ones. Halakha ("Jewish law," though the word comes from the root meaning "to walk," so I like to translate it as the Jewish "path" or "way of walking") concerns itself deeply both with spiritual / ritual life and with political / community engagement.  My religious tradition and spiritual path call me to care for the widow and orphan, to love the stranger, to pursue justice, to give hatespeech no quarter.

Love is a core spiritual value in most religious traditions (including mine). But love isn't enough. In kabbalistic language, chesed (lovingkindness) by itself isn't enough: it needs to be balanced with gevurah (boundaries, ethics, justice), among other things. If we only want to feel love and don't also put our hands to the task of building justice, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't willing to do the hard work of seeing toxic systems and structures for what they are, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't capable of naming injustice and demanding better, then we're doing it wrong.

Because -- as Cornel West teaches -- love is what justice looks like in public. Torah urges us to love our neighbor, our other, as ourselves. That doesn't mean "love your neighbor the way you yourself want to be loved" -- I mean, in some cases it might, but it can't mean only that. It has to also mean "love your neighbor the way they want to be loved," and "love your neighbor in a way that recognizes their inherent dignity and worth," and that requires demanding for them every human right, every due process, every dignity to which they are entitled. It means not allowing hateful speech of any kind to stand, much less to proliferate. 

Love can't be separated from justice. Anything less isn't the love we're called to pursue.

 

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017.


My latest for The Wisdom Daily

...Our ancestors believed that only something “perfect” was fit to be given to God — whether as an offering, or as the one who facilitated the offering. Reading those words now, I’m struck by how neatly they align with the negativity we’re taught to feel about our bodies. Only someone “perfect” will be desirable, says the toxic siren song of American culture. Only someone “perfect” will be wanted, will be cherished, will be blessed with companionship on life’s journey...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily. Read it here: Perfect Bodies Are Glorified Everywhere... Even In the Torah


A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy

Coin-300x225In this week's Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu bring "strange fire" before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week's Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, "did it wrong," and were instantly killed. 

The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron's reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there's nothing one can say.

I don't have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can't understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.

Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach -- according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, "even the merest handmaiden." Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.

Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today's Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?

For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don't necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation. 

Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin -- and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition's ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now. 

So here's my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal... so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.

 

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


Hametz, fire, and miracles: a d'var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol

Bread-fireIt's Shabbat HaGadol: "The Great Shabbat," the Shabbat before Pesach. The Shibolei Haleket (R. Zedekiah b. Abraham Harof Anav, d. 1275) explains, "on the Shabbat before Passover the people stay late into the afternoon... in order to hear the sermon expounding upon the laws of removing leaven..."

Everybody ready to listen to instructions for kashering your kitchens?

Just kidding. Though I am going to talk about hametz, and this week's Torah portion, and miracles.

The word חמץ / hametz comes from lichmotz, to sour or ferment. Hametz is grain that has fermented. When we left Egypt, we didn't have time for natural sourdough to leaven our bread, so we baked flat crackers and left in haste. Torah offers us two instructions 1) eat matzah as we re-live the Exodus, and 2) get rid of leaven. The matzah part, we'll do during Pesach. The getting-rid-of-leaven part, we have to do in advance.

Today is Shabbes, our foretaste of the world to come. Today we do no work. We rest and are ensouled, as was God on the first Shabbat. But tomorrow, and in the weekdays to come, many of us may be doing some spring cleaning as we prepare to rid our homes of leaven for a week. Of course, getting rid of leaven doesn't "just" mean getting rid of leaven. It can also mean a kind of spiritual housecleaning.

Hametz can represent ego, what puffs us up internally. The therapists among us might note that ego is important: indeed it is. Without a healthy ego, you'd be in trouble. But if one's ego gets too big, that's a problem too. The internal search for hametz is an invitation to examine ego and to discern what work we need. Some need to discard the hametz of needing to be the center of attention. Others need to discard the hametz of not wanting to take up the space we deserve. 

Another interpretation: hametz is that within us which has become sour. Old stories, old narratives, old scripts. Old ideas about "us" and "them," old angers, old hurts. Look inside: are you carrying the memory of someone who made you angry? Are you holding on to old grievances? Search your heart: what's the old stuff you need to scrape up and throw away?

That's where this week's Torah portion, Tzav, comes in. This is the ritual of the burnt offering, says God. Keep the fire burning all night until morning. And every morning, take the ashes outside the camp, to a clean place. Notice that removing the ashes is mentioned right up there with burning the offering. Because if the ashes are allowed to accumulate, they'll choke the fire. 

The spiritual work of keeping our fires burning belongs to all of us. It's our job to feed the fires of hope, the fires of justice, the fires of our own spiritual lives that fuel our work toward a world redeemed. Keep the fire burning all night: even in our "dark" times, when we feel trapped, even crushed, by life's narrow places. 

The thing is, over the course of a year our fires get choked with ash. Disappointments and cynicism and overwork and burnout keep our fires from burning as bright as they could be. This week's Torah portion reminds us to clean out our ashes. (It's no coincidence that Tzav comes right before Pesach.)

Pesach offers us spiritual renewal. Pesach invites us to live in the as-if -- as if we were redeemed; as if we were free; as if all of this world's broken places and ugly "isms" were healed. But in order for our spiritual fires to be renewed, we have to clean out the ashes. We have to get rid of the hametz, the schmutz, the ashes and crumbs and remnants of the old year that have become sour and dusty, in order to become ready to be free.

Ridding ourselves of the old year's mistakes and mis-steps in order to begin again: is this making you think of any other time of year? If this inner work sounds like the work we do before Rosh Hashanah, that's because it is.

I learned from my teacher and friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz that we work on our imperfections both during Nissan (now) and Tishri (the High Holidays), and we can dedicate one to working on our "external" stuff and the other to what's hidden or internal. The Megaleh Amukot (Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira, d. 1633) wrote that these two months of Nissan and Tishri correspond to each other, because during each of these seasons we're called to seek out and destroy hametz in body and soul.

Another link between Passover preparation and the teshuvah work of the new year: this season, too, is called a new year. Talmud teaches that we have four "New Years"es. The new moon of Tishri is the new year for years. The new year for trees, Tu BiShvat, is in deep winter. The new year for animals is on 1 Elul. And then there's the new moon of Nisan, ushering in the month containing Pesach... and this entire month has the holiness of a Rosh Chodesh, a New Moon. This whole month is our springtime new year. 

Right now the moon is waxing. The light of the moon can represent God's presence -- sometimes visible, and sometimes not, but always with us. Right now there's more moonlight every night, and we're invited to experience more connection with holiness with each passing day. Our work now is to clean house, spiritually, by the light of this waxing moon -- in order to be internally ready to choose freedom. 

When you think of a miracle, what do you think of? Maybe the parting of the Sea of Reeds: that's a big, shiny, visible miracle from the Passover story. But hope growing in tight places is also a miracle. The fact that we can make teshuvah is a miracle. The fact that we can grow and change is a miracle. The fact that we can do our inner work and emerge transformed is a miracle. This is a month of miracles -- as evidenced by its name: the name Nissan comes from נס / nes, "miracle."

On Thursday night, some of us will hide crusts of bread around our homes. We'll search for them by the light of a candle. And then on the morning of the day that will become Pesach we'll burn them, destroying the old year's hametz. Whether or not you engage literally in that ancient custom of bedikat hametz (searching for / destroying leaven), you can do that work spiritually. (And we'll begin some of it together during our contemplative mincha service this afternoon.)

What is the old stuff you need to root out and discard in order to walk unencumbered into freedom?

How can you "carry out the ashes" so the altar of your heart can become clean and clear, ready to burn with the fire of hope, the fire of justice, the fire of new beginnings?

 

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


"For one who truly loves..."

39911307485_352177954a_z"For one who truly loves, there is the commandment-like need to provide goodness for the beloved that turns the love from sentiment to substance."

My Wednesday morning coffee shop hevruta group is reading Mesillat Yesharim ("The Path of the Upright"), by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone. This morning, one of the sentences that leapt out at me came from Stone's commentary -- the line I cited, above.

"Love of God" can be an abstract concept. What does it mean to "love" the infinite source of all? But we can understand love of another human being. The love of a (healthy) parent for a child, the love of a friend for a beloved friend. If we are lucky, we know what it is to love.

And when one loves, there is a yearning to do for the beloved. Not because it's "commanded," but because one just wants to. I give to my child not because anyone told me to, and not because of anything he will do for me in return, but just because my heart calls me to care for him.

It's easy to say "I love you." But far more important, for Luzzatto, are the actions that underpin our words. It's not enough to say; we also need to do. In relationship with a human beloved, we do whatever we can to bring sweetness to that beloved. That's what "turns the love from sentiment to substance" -- that makes it real.

Our mystical tradition teaches that each of us is enlivened by a nitzotz Elohut, a spark of divinity. The love I feel -- that motivates me to yearn to provide goodness for those whom I love -- is, in a way, love of God. Because when I love another human being, I'm also loving the spark of God within them, whether I'm aware of it or not.

(That intersection between loving others and loving God is the place out of which Texts to the Holy was written.)

Our daily liturgy reminds us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might. Saying those words is easy. More important, though, is doing those words. I think Luzzatto is saying that we (should) express love of God through seeking to act in a way that brings the Beloved joy. In this, we ourselves find joy. 

It's a tall order. In every moment of my day I have an opportunity to choose to follow my yetzer ha-tov, my "good impulse," rather than my yetzer ha-ra (my ego, my drive, my "evil inclination"). I know how often I fall short. It's easy to fall into asking, who am I to imagine that I can give God joy?

But when trying to bring joy to God feels like more than I can grasp or manage, I can shift focus from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the cosmic Beloved to my smaller human beloveds. And then my anxiety vanishes, and I can feel the channels of my heart opening, and it is the easiest thing in the world to let love pour through.

 


Choose life: what Ki Tisa teaches us about Shabbat


32195101210_e641d2e4fa_zThe Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed [or: was ensouled].

That's in this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Many of us know these words because they have become a part of our Shabbat liturgy, as the prayer we call by its first word, V'shamru. We sing these words on Friday nights and on Saturday mornings before kiddush.

Immediately before these familiar verses, there is another instruction to keep Shabbat as a sign between us and God. But this one contains some more challenging language:

You shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a shabbat of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does work on Shabbat shall be put to death.

Oof.

The medieval commentator Rashi (d. 1105) clarifies that the death sentence only applies if the person does work on Shabbat in the presence of witnesses, AND if the person was warned, immediately before doing the work, what the penalty would be. This is a pretty common rabbinic move: taking something in Torah that startles us with its harshness, and adding qualifying stipulations that make it much harder for the harsh law to be applied.

The Sforno (d. 1550) is less apologetic about the starkness of this command. He writes that anyone who deliberately desecrates Shabbat thereby denies God Who created all things including rest. Someone who performs secular tasks on Shabbat has clearly lost consciousness of what Shabbat means, and therefore deserves execution. You make your choices, you live with the consequences.

I agree with the Sforno that our choices have consequences, but I read these verses a little bit differently. I see them not as prescriptive, but descriptive.

Another way to translate "מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת," usually rendered as "will be put to death," is "he will surely die." This passage comes to teach us that one who doesn't honor Shabbat, who doesn't honor the holiness of resting from workday acts and workday consciousness, will bring themselves closer to death. One who works constantly, and lives in a state of workday consciousness 24/7, will be deadened thereby.

Every week when Friday night and Saturday roll around, we make choices. Will we disengage from work, and from our worries, and from 24/7 cable news, and from all the things that make us feel trapped like rats in a maze? Will we set aside our burdens and welcome the presence of that extra Shabbat soul enlivening us and enabling us to take a full, deep breath? Will we affirm that connecting with our deepest selves and with our Source matters more than our to-do lists and our deadlines?

That's the choice. We can let Shabbat transform us, or we can stick with the rat race. And if we choose the endless rat race, we're going to wind up feeling dead inside.

Choose rest. Choose Shabbes. Choose life.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

 


"Come to Pharaoh," and whom we choose to serve

Come-here-pleaseThis week's Torah portion is called Bo, for its opening words ויאמר יהו׳׳ה על–משה בא על–פרעא / Vayomer YHVH el-Moshe, "Bo el-Paro" -- "And God said to Moshe, 'Come to Pharaoh.'"

Most translations say "Go to Pharaoh." But the Hebrew is pretty clearly "Come." For me, the difference between "come" and "go" is that the first one connotes "the place where I am." If I say to my son, "Come here, I want to talk to you," I'm asking him to come where I am. If I say "Go over there," I'm telling him to go to the place where I am not. So when Torah says Bo el-Paro, I hear God saying, "Come here to Pharaoh -- to the place where I also Am." (This is not my own insight -- Zohar scholar Danny Matt sees this as an invitation to "come" into God's presence, too.)

We might prefer to imagine that God is not with Paro. Pharaoh is the exemplar of toxic power-over. He regards the children of Israel as subhuman. He describes them with words that connote vermin swarming. He's ordered policies that literally kill all of their male children. And yet with this one simple phrase, Torah reminds us that there is no place devoid of God's presence. Not even the place where Pharaoh is.

The next thing we read in Torah is a bit troubling: כי–אני הכבדתי את–לבו / ki-ani hich'bad'ti et-libo, "For I have hardened his heart." Whoa, hold up: God hardened his heart? Wouldn't it have been easier for God to simply soften Pharaoh's heart so that the children of Israel could be set free without all of this drama?

But if we look back at last week's Torah portion, we'll see a different phrase. Last week, Moshe and Aharon spoke to Pharaoh, and Paraoh hardened his heart and did not listen. Three times we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not listen, before we reach this mention of God hardening his heart. (Many of our commentators observe this, among them Rashi.) I think Torah is teaching us some deep wisdom about the human heart.

The heart flows in the ways to which we habituate ourselves. If we practice gratitude every morning, even on the days when we're not "feeling it," we can train the heart to incline toward gratitude. If we practice compassion toward others, even on the days when we're not "feeling it," we can train the heart to incline toward compassion. And if we practice hardening our hearts -- maybe by telling ourselves that "those people" aren't our problem; they're a different generation, or their skin is different, or they dress differently or pray differently or speak a different language -- then we train our hearts to incline toward hardness. Like Pharaoh's.

Torah says God hardened Pharaoh's heart, but Pharaoh had already hardened it, time and again. I think God just got out of the way and let Pharaoh continue being who he had already shown himself to be. That doesn't mean God isn't with him. We don't get to say that God is only "on our side." But it does mean that Pharaoh's made his choices, and there will be consequences.

That's verse 1.

In verse 2, God continues that the purpose of the signs and wonders -- the ten plagues and our subsequent liberation -- is so that we may teach all the generations to come the story of the Exodus. This is our core story as Jews, and we tell it in our daily liturgy, in the Shabbat kiddush, and in the Passover seder.

And in verse 3, Moshe and Aharon say to Pharaoh, how long are you going to be like this? Let God's people go so that we may serve God. In God's words, שלח עמי ויעבדני / shlach ami v'ya'avduni, "Let My people go that they may serve Me." The root ע/ב/ד means service, both in the sense of the service the priests performed in the Temple of old (and the "services" we attend today) and in the sense of serving God with our hearts and our lives and our being. As we read earlier this morning, "Everyone serves something; give your life to Me."

Everyone serves something. The question is, do we serve Pharaoh -- emblem of commercialism and and overwork, dehumanization and xenophobia, all of which are still perfectly alive and well in our day -- or do we serve something else?

Judaism invites us to choose "something else." Judaism invites us to make the profoundly countercultural choice of spending 25 hours each week disengaged from work, not only physically but also intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Judaism invites us to say: there is something more important than all of our making and doing and achieving, and that something is Shabbat rest. Not just "taking a nap," though the Shabbos schluff is a time-honored tradition, but opening our hearts and souls to the weekly rejuvenation that becomes possible when we disconnect from workday consciousness and open ourselves to something beyond ourselves.

Judaism invites us to set aside the worries of the workweek and take a deep breath that goes all the way to our kishkes, all the way to our insides. On the seventh day, Torah teaches, שבת וינפש / shavat va-yinafash -- God rested and was ensouled. (We sing these words in the prayer V'shamru each week.) When God rested from creating, God's-own-self became ensouled in a new way. So do we.

May this Shabbat be a time of real rest and re-ensoul-ment. May we be reminded of the things that are more important than our budgets' bottom lines. And may our lives be lives of service to God -- and to the spark of divinity manifest in every human being with whom we share this earth.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


If we will it... (on #HolyWomenHolyLand, #MLK, and hope)

26230028_10213916856688417_2297923387648617796_nRecently I've been following a series of stories online, hashtagged #HolyWomenHolyLand -- written by a group of six rabbis and five pastors (all women) who have been traveling together in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Their updates have been heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. They've met with parents from the Bereaved Parents Circle, with Women Wage Peace -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, religious, secular, settler, Arab, Israeli. They've met with leaders and activists and ordinary people on all "sides" of the conflict. They've visited holy sites together. They've eaten and prayed and wept and learned together. 

And one of the messages that keeps coming through, in their tweets and their Facebook status updates and their essays, is that women in Israel and Palestine insist that they do not have the luxury of losing hope. In the words of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss:

It's easy to look at the state of the world and despair. It is far more radical to cultivate hope -- and to take action toward the world of our hopes instead of the world of our fears. But that's the call I hear emerging from the rabbis and pastors who went on the #HolyWomenHolyLand trip...

...and it's the call still emanating from the words we just heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King z"l, who dared to dream that some day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down at a table of brotherhood. 

Our own core story, unfolding in Torah even now, teaches that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and our enslavement left us with kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, such that we couldn't even hope for better. We got hammered down, like bent nails. (Here's a beautiful sketchnote illustration of that by Steve Silbert, based in a d'var Torah by Rabbi Sarah Bassin.)

Dr. King was talking about the literal descendants of slaves and slave-owners, not about the mythic, psycho-spiritual sense in which each year we recapitulate the journey from constriction to freedom. I don't want to elide or ignore that difference.

But I think there's a way in which in America today many of us have that kotzer ruach, that constriction of spirit, that Torah says our ancestors knew. There's injustice everywhere we turn. How do we cultivate hope when our own spirits may feel worn down by sexism and racism and bullying and gaslighting and bracing ourselves to hear the next horror story in the daily news?

Last week's Torah portion told us that our ancestors cried out in their bondage, and their cry rose up to God, and God answered. The first step toward change was crying out. When we cry out, even from a place of hopelessness, we open ourselves up. Maybe just a little bit, but in that little opening, the seeds of hope can be planted. We can tend those seeds in each other. 

Theodore Herzl famously taught, "If you will it, it is no dream." The quote continues, "If you do not will it, a dream it is, and a dream it will stay." The first step is to dream of a future that is better than what we know now. The second step is to will that future into being -- to build and bridge and act to bring that future into being -- so that what now is only dream will become real.

We can't afford to lose hope, any more than our sisters and brothers in the Middle East can afford to lose hope. Dr. King's vision calls out to us: it is as necessary today as it was the day he first penned the words. May we be inspired to live in his legacy and to build an America, and a world, where everyone can be free at last.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at CBI (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

I offered these words after chanting excerpts from MLK's "I Have a Dream," set to haftarah trope by Rabbi David Markus, which you can glimpse as the image illustrating this post. Deep thanks to R' David for sharing that setting;  you can hear a recording of the whole thing and see the annotated haftarah on his website.


Miketz: letting yourself dream

OriginalThe beginning of this week's Torah portion, Miketz, describes two of Pharaoh's dreams. First he dreamed about seven healthy cows who got devoured by seven gaunt cows. Then he dreamed about seven healthy ears of grain that got devoured by seven thin gaunt ears. Disconcerting images.

Both times, he woke and realized he'd been dreaming. And then one of his servants remembered the fellow named Joseph, languishing in prison, who was able to interpret dreams. And so Joseph was released from prison, and brought to Pharaoh to help him understand the meaning of his dreaming.

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z"l, wrote:

When my daughter, Shel, was 8 years old, she asked me, "Abba, when you’re asleep, you can wake up, right? When you are awake, can you wake up even more?" 

(-- Expanded Awareness and Extended Consciousness)

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, we can wake up more. We can wake from complacency. We can wake from routine. We can wake from taking things for granted. We can wake to hope and to wonder. That's the good news. The frustrating news is that such awakenings are rarely permanent. We wake from complacency and recognize that if we want a morerighteous world, we have to build it... and then we forget. We wake from routine and recognize that being alive is a miracle... and then we forget.

This is spiritual life: being awakened into awareness, and then falling out of awareness, and then awakening again. None of us can live in a perennial state of gadlut, expansive consciousness. The great thing about the fact that we keep falling asleep is that we can also keep waking up. We're designed to keep waking up. I posit to you that being "asleep" isn't actually a bad thing. Spiritually, maybe we need the oscillation between forgetting and remembering. And maybe being "asleep" helps us daydream.

Pharaoh was troubled by his dreams. We've all had that experience: a recurring dream that sticks with us long after the day's first cup of coffee. We wonder: what is the dream trying to tell us? What does it mean? My friend and teacher Rodger Kamenetz, author of The History of Last Night's Dream, teaches that dreams aren't "texts" to be "interpreted." Rather, they're landscapes of feeling. They can give us deep access to our emotions. (If this interests you, learn more about his practice of dreamwork.)

I wonder what would happen if we approached our waking dreams the way Rodger suggests approaching our sleeping dreams: entering the emotional landscape of the reverie, with a trusted guide and companion, and seeing what we can learn from that exploration of our yearnings. Waking reveries are different from nighttime dreams, but I think we should treat our daydreams with the same presumption of depth and meaning that we bring to thinking about the dreams that play out while we sleep.

I think our daydreams can tell us a lot about what we yearn for: not what we think we're "supposed" to want, but what our hearts and souls actually crave. Maybe we ache for love, or for comfort, or for justice, or for being fully uplifted in all that we are. But most of us are taught, in a variety of ways, not to credit those yearnings. What would happen if we chose to wake up: not from those dreams, but with those dreams? What would happen if we brought our daydreams more fully into our waking lives?

We always reach parashat Miketz at this time of year. I imagine there's something different, psycho-spiritually, about reading Miketz in Australia or Argentina where right now it's high summer. Where I live, this is a season of deepening winter. Long nights, short days, battening down the hatches... Winter's a great time to hunker down and pay attention to our dreams -- the sleeping ones, and the waking ones -- to see what they tell us about what we fear, and what we love, and what we yearn for.

What do you dream of: for yourself? For your family, whether blood or chosen? For your community? For your world?

If we allow ourselves to face our yearnings, we also have to face fear that our yearnings might not come to pass. The dreams of our hearts are tender. (If you're going to delve into them, I hope you do so with a trusted guide, maybe a therapist or spiritual director.) When Joseph helped Pharaoh understand his dreams, Pharaoh made decisions about the future of his nation (and ours, too). What changes might we make if we took our own dreams seriously -- the sleeping ones, and the waking ones too?

May this winter give you us space and safety we need to look at what we yearn for... and may we find the inner reserves of fuel we need in order to make those dreams come true.

 

With gratitude to my hevruta partner for opening up for me these connections between Miketz and dream.

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


Mikeitz Sketchnote

My friend Steve Silbert has been drawing weekly sketchnote illustrations of each week's Torah portion. This week he writes:

This week’s Torah portion is called Mikeitz, which means “after”. In context, it’s two years after Joseph was sold into slavery. Since this parsha falls on the first night of Hanukkah I chose to sketchnote a dvar Torah by my friend Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. In her dvar Torah she connects this installment of the story of Joseph with Hanukkah through the divine spark that exists in us all. Near the end, she brings it all together by writing that "Whatever clothing we wear, whatever persona we adopt, it's our job in this world to be human candles. To shed light in the darkness, wherever we go."

Shalom.

And here's his illustration:

25354119_10212948736665127_1047588486772676104_n

 

 

 

I'm honored to have inspired his sketchnote this week! I think this is such a beautiful way to engage with Torah.

You can leave him feedback on his Facebook page or on Twitter.


#URJBiennial 2017: Ten Years of the Women's Torah Commentary

24033021147_99aca2340e_zIn the shul that I serve, two editions of the Torah are tucked into the seats in our sanctuary. One is The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by Gunther Plaut -- the standard (male-authored) commentary that appears in most Reform congregations. The other is The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Eskenazi and Weiss, which came out ten years ago featuring entirely the commentary and voices of women.

I attended a session celebrating the book at the URJ Biennial featuring Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, associate professor of Bible at the NY campus of HUC-JIR (also responsible for American Values and Voices) who served as associate editor of this book.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss began by explaining that the story of this volume started 25 years ago. Cantor Sarah Sager was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at a district biennial in Albany, and as she prepared her d'var Torah on Vayera she started to think about Sarah and asked a question that 25 years ago was a novel one: where was Sarah when Abraham took their son up the mountain?

She researched this, and discovered that she wasn't the first to ask the question, and that in fact people were beginning then to work in diverse fields to uncover and recover a more complex picture of women than the pshat (surface) Torah narrative suggests. But there was no organized, cohesive way to access this work. She ended her d'var Torah with the charge to commission the first feminist commentary to the Torah.

The leaders of the Women of Reform Judaism established a commentary committee that brought together rabbis, scholars, WRJ leaders and others. (We see a slide depicting the agenda for that gathering, including items like "Discussion of 'feminism, 'womanism' and other related terms." Wow.) The next step was a pilot project called Beginning the Journey: A Women's Commentary on Torah, edited by Rabbi Emily H. Feigenson, featuring the voices of HUC-JIR graduates. That book made clear, Rabbi Dr. Weiss says, that the way to move forward was to focus seriously on scholarship: women scholars in Bible, rabbinics, and other fields.

The editors were named; an editorial board was established (and oh, wow is it a "who's who" of amazing women in Biblical scholarship!); and they came up with the vision of a multivocal edition. For each Torah portion they would feature the Hebrew text, translation, commentary, a section called "another view" that offers another voice on the parsha, a post-Biblical piece, a contemporary reflection, and a section called "voices" which collects poetry and other creative responses. The intention was for the book to be definitively Jewish and definitively feminist, modeled in some way after Mikraot Gedolot which is always printed in editions that feature text surrounded by commentary.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss spoke about the diversity of the book's readership, and the extent to which it's been embraced across the denominations. She offers us a quote from Blu Greenberg:

Here are the voices of women from across the entire spectrum of Jewish life... although this work was initiated, funded, shepherded, overseen, edited, and largely produced by two extraordinary Reform Jewish scholars... it does not have the feeling of being owned by any one group, which explains why it has become the property of the whole Jewish people, as indeed any good commentary should.

It sounds like the book's creators have a sense now that what they did was historic -- in a way that wasn't entirely clear to them at the time. Rabbi Dr. Weiss says now that "The book translates feminist Biblical scholarship into a format that's useful for...laypeople and clergy of all genders." I agree.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss shared with us also an excerpt from this article by Rabbi Hara Person, Why Women’s Torah Commentary Matters Today More Than Ever Before. Rabbi Person writes:

The publication of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was historic because when women become scholars and commentators of Torah, we take our rightful place in the sacred dialogue of text study, fulfilling the age-old Jewish responsibility of creating ongoing Jewish engagement and meaning. When women create a Torah commentary, we declare that the lives and experiences of the women of the Torah matter, and thus that the lives and concerns of contemporary women matter, too. This commentary stakes a claim for women in the narrative of our tradition and the sacred endeavors of our community, and in so doing, women are empowered to share their voices both within the Jewish community and in greater society.

I was also excited to hear from Dr. Ruhama Weiss (no relation to Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss!) that the book is now being translated both into Hebrew and into an Israeli women's culture idiom. There are plans afoot for an Israeli women's commentary that will feature some of what's in this book and also some of what's happening in Israeli women's commentary now.

Dr. (Ruhama) Weiss led us in a study of a poem by Nurit Zarchi called "She Is Joseph," touching on questions of feminist interpretation and women's representation in the Bible, and explored how our male sages responded to the story wherein Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar's wife (and what their responses say about their own anxieties about masculinity and gender) -- a fabulous exploration, and the kind of Torah study that reminds me why I'm grateful this book exists.